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He’s not yet made his way to Latin America, but he may yet do so: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua have been staunch friends of Iran over the years. Surely those countries will want to bask in Tehran’s newfound diplomatic luster and supp at the trough of its economic promise, now that most sanctions have been lifted.
Iran’s penetration of Latin America goes back more than 20 years. The bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, and the attack on the AMIA social welfare building in 1994, which killed more than 80 people, can be laid at the doorstep of Iranian operatives and their terrorist proxies, Hezbollah.
With the coming to power of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Iran ratcheted up its operations in the hemisphere, including the infamous Tehran-Caracas IranAir flight, which symbolized the close ties the two regimes established. Fellow travelers Bolivia and Ecuador — part of the South American anti-West club — soon joined eagerly, surely benefiting from Tehran’s “walking around” largesse, used to expand its influence in the region.
Indeed, Venezuela has fallen further into an economic abyss under Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, making more likely Caracas will become even more indebted (and not just financially) to the Iranians.
The result has been not only an Iranian friendship circle, but a bloc of countries pledged to anti-Israel rhetoric and activity at the United Nations and other multilateral fora.
A recent report in London’s Al-Awsat Arabic newspaper speaks of Hezbollah cells operating in at least five countries in the hemisphere, which comes as no surprise. Similar reports have been cropping up over the now nearly 25 years since the terrorist acts in Buenos Aires.
Against this backdrop of Iranian activity in our backyard, there is some encouraging news. The new government in Argentina, led by Mauricio Macri has rolled back a “memorandum of understanding” between the previous Argentine government and Iran, the purpose of which was to bury the longtime investigation into the AMIA bombing — and with it Tehran’s clear fingerprints — and its terrorist presence in that country. It has also given new impetus to an investigation into the mysterious death of Alberto Nisman, the chief Argentine prosecutor in the case — and who was on the verge of disclosing details that may have incriminated Argentine government operatives, as well as the Iranians.
As a result, Argentine-Israeli relations are expected to vastly improve. That may also be the case in Uruguay, which now holds a UN Security Council seat, and whose previous government was often seen as sympathetic to Palestinian and radical positions on a wide range of issues. Uruguay’s new (and former) President Tabare Vazquez did post-doctoral work at the Weizmann Institute years ago, and takes a much more open-minded view of Middle East issues than his predecessor.
And then there is Paraguay. For years, the locus of one third of the infamous tri-border area (together with Brazil and Argentina), a lawless center for smuggling and hospitable to radical elements, the country is led by a president, Horacio Cartes, who has taken principled stands — at odds with his neighbors — including votes at the United Nations relating to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Our attention is often so riveted on the concentric circles of chaos, terrorism and violence in the Middle East and North Africa, we sometimes lose sight of what transpires south of our border. For more than two decades now, Iran has seen our neighborhood as a target of opportunity, and has cultivated it with impunity: terrorist bombings for which it has never paid a price, flattering the likes of Chavez and his circle for strategic gain and creating cells of agents moving about from here to who-knows-where.
Now out-and-about that they are free of official international opprobrium, the ties they have created in Latin America bear special scrutiny. Rather than having to work largely out of the public eye, they can do so now to a large extent above board. Look for “official visits” of Rouhani and others to our hemisphere, in short order. Ignoring this threat, like so many others that characterize the regime in Tehran, would be at our peril.