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Iran in Latin America Finally Acknowledged As A Problem
After several years of reporting on the increasing ties of Iran to Latin American insurgent and criminal groups (see this paper and this one I did for the International Assessment and Strategy Center), it is nice to see senior officials now finally acknowledging the seriousness of the issue.

"We have seen... an increase in a wide level of activity by the Iranian government in this region," (Admiral James) Stavridis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"That is a concern principally because of the connections between the government of Iran, which is a state sponsor of terrorism, and Hezbollah," he said.

Unfortunately, the admiral did not note the Iranian financial institutions in Venezuela and Panama, or other visible and worrisome aspects of the Iranian presence.

What one has to ask oneself is, why is Iran so willing to spend precious resources in a region where it has no religious, cultural, historical or linguistic ties? As we see below, the multiple promises of economic aid are seldom fulfilled, nor is there any accounting of the Iranian money that flows to these governments. Yet, their diplomatic missions grow exponentially, offering the perfect cover for the Quds Force and Hezbollah to move freely.

Some of the activities of Iran in Nicaragua are outlined by Todd Bensman, who has been one of the few journalists to pursue the issue.

Here is part of what he found:

found that no Iranian money or concrete planning had materialized for a promised new $350 million port on the eastern seaboard bay known as Monkey Point. The Iranians had only made at least a couple of easy day trips there and elsewhere around the country aboard helicopters. Neither had anything developed from Iranian promises to redevelop the dilapidated western port of Corinto, which supposedly would be linked to this Monkey Point port by a dry land canal. To date, no progress on either project has been reported. But the Iranian diplomatic mission that American national security experts most feared was sure up and humming with activity. It has steadily expanded its “staff,” according to some scattered local Nicaragua news reports.

I also discovered that suspected Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives had been moving in and out of the country in unusual ways that assured secrecy. For instance, I was given ministry of migration documents that show a senior Nicaraguan minister had allowed 21 Iranian men to enter without passport processing. This was exactly the kind of activity that preceded the Argentina bombings in 1992 and 1994. It’s the same kind of secretive movement going on in and out of Venezuela that gives current and former American counterterrorism officials — and Jewish communities in the region — the cold sweats.

This gets to the center of Iran's relationships in the region. Some countries, notably Brazil, maintain diplomatic and economic relations with Iran part of the normal international dealings. They are transparent, above-board and open to public scrutiny and debate.

Yet the relations of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua with Iran bear none of those characteristics. All are shrouded in secrecy, not subject to normal oversight by legislative and cabinet officials, and full of multiple irregularities. Given Iran's direct sponsorship of Hezbollah, its history of carrying out violent attacks in the region and Hezbollah's decades-long ties to organized criminal activities to raise money, concern about these activities is not misplaced.

Stavridis said Hezbollah activities in South America have been concentrated particularly in the border region between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, but also in Colombia.

"We have been seeing in Colombia a direct connection between Hezbollah activity and narco-trafficking activity," the commander added, without providing specifics.

Colombia said last October that it had smashed a drug and money-laundering ring suspected of shipping funds to Hezbollah.

In fact, the drug ring in Colombia was a small part of a multi-continent criminal enterprise run by Hezbollah that helped it raise millions of dollars a year.

There are multiple crises in the world. But the Iranian willingness to spend scarce resources on building an infrastructure in Latin America is clearly one that needs to be taken seriously.
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