FPI Bulletin: House Panel to Examine Iran’s Threat in the Western Hemisphere

July 9, 2013

Amid growing concern about Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons-making capability and its support for international terrorism, lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency are set today to debate a controversial report by the Obama administration on the growing presence of Iranian operatives and proxies in Latin America.  The State Department produced the report in response to the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012 (Public Law 112-220), authored by the subcommittee’s chairman Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC).
The Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012 directed the Secretary of State to conduct an assessment of “the threats posed to the United States by Iran's growing presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere,” and submit to Congress “the results of the assessment and a strategy to address Iran's growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere.”  Although the June 2013 report on Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere is classified, the State Department produced a two-page unclassified annex that summarizes the report’s policy recommendations, and controversially states:  “As a result of diplomatic outreach, strengthening of allies’ capacity, international nonproliferation efforts, a strong sanctions policy, and Iran’s poor management of its foreign relations, Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning.”
Some lawmakers are questioning the methodology used by the State Department in the report.  Congressman Duncan recently noted that the State Department “did not reach out to even one country in the Western Hemisphere in the crafting of the threat assessment and strategy,” adding:  “It makes no sense for the State Department to send a report [on Iran’s threat in the Western Hemisphere] to Congress without considering the views of our allies in the region.”
Congressman Duncan also cited how the State Department’s report ignored a major study published in May 2013 by Alberto Nisman, General Prosecutor in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The findings of Nisman’s report are noteworthy for various reasons.  First, his study implicates senior Iranian government officials in the deadly 1994 attack.  Second, the report outlines Iran’s conscious decision to use terrorism—either directly or through proxies—as a tool to export the Islamic Revolution.  And third, the study details the Iranian regime’s systematic approach to expand its influence throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.  As Nisman argues, “the AMIA bombing did not constitute an isolated event,” but rather “has to be investigated and understood as a segment in a larger sequence.” 
Indeed, Iran has established a long record of attempting to use the region as a springboard to launch attacks against the United States.  For example, an Iranian-American pleaded guilty in October 2012 to conspiring “with officials in the Iranian military” to hire a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States. 
Moreover, several individuals with ties to the Iranian regime were arrested in Trinidad in June 2007 and charged with planning an attack John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.  One of the conspirators, named Abdul Kadir, was arrested while on a plane headed to Iran via Venezuela.  According to the Department of Justice, Kadir met with “contacts in the Iranian revolutionary leadership, including Mohsen Rabbani, the former cultural attaché indicted for his leading role in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.”  The Justice Department also noted that Kadir, a former Guyanese official, later admitted that he “regularly passed information to Iranian authorities about sensitive topics, including the Guyanese military, and believed himself bound to follow fatwas from Iranian religious leaders.”
Nisman was invited to testify before the House subcommittee today.  However, according to a letter from Nisman to Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, the General Attorney of Argentina denied his travel request. It appears that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner may not have wanted to jeopardize growing ties between Buenos Aires and Tehran.  Indeed, the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding in January 2013 to all but eliminate Iranian culpability in the 1994 attack, thereby removing what some Iran watchers have described as a “major impediment to a full rapprochement” between the two countries.

Last but not least, Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based terrorist organization that serves as Iran’s proxy, has also penetrated into the Western Hemisphere.  Indeed, under the late Hugo Chavez, Venezuela provided Hezbollah a hub for access to Latin America.  Moreover, Hezbollah has long operated in the region, helping to carry out not only the 1992 bombing of the Embassy of Israel in Argentina, but also the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center.  It also has attempted to cooperate with narco-terrorist groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the State Department designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 1997.

In recent years, senior civilian and military officials in the Venezuelan government have facilitated even closer ties between narco-traffickers and Hezbollah.  This access has enabled Hezbollah operatives to use the lawless lands of the so-called tri-border area of southwestern Brazil, northeastern Argentina, and southern Paraguay as a base of operations for not only recruiting, but also fundraising and money laundering throughout the region.  As General John F. Kelly (USMC), Commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), recently warned congressional lawmakers, “the Lebanese Shi'a diaspora [in Central and South America] … may generate as much as tens of millions of dollars for Hezbollah through both licit and illicit means.”

As the United States works to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons-making capability and escalating its use of terrorist proxies around the globe, it cannot ignore what appears to be the growing presence of Iran, Hezbollah, and other proxies in Latin America.  Tuesday’s House subcommittee hearing provides lawmakers with an important opportunity to better identify and understand this growing challenge.


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