If you’re looking for evidence that a nuclear Iran would be very difficult (if not impossible) to “contain,” visit Buenos Aires. Between 1992 and 1994, the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah launched not one but two murderous attacks in the Argentine capital, bombing both the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center. It is widely believed that Tehran was involved in plotting the deadly explosions. If a non-nuclear Iranian government felt bold enough to mastermind such horrendous attacks in a faraway, seemingly random country, just imagine how aggressive a nuclear-armed Iran might be.
Argentines obviously remember the two bombings, and they (along with everyone else) have good reason to worry about Iran’s growing footprint in Latin America. The Iranian leadership has developed a close working relationship with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, and it has also reached out to Chávez acolytes in Bolivia (Evo Morales) and Nicaragua (Daniel Ortega). Like Iran, Venezuela is a state sponsor of terrorism whose government harbors a messianic and virulently anti-American worldview. Though some analysts have tried to minimize its significance, the Tehran-Caracas alliance now represents the biggest threat to hemispheric stability, a reality that the Obama administration simply cannot ignore.
In mid-October, a Russian media outlet reported that Moscow might sell its S-300 air-defense systems to Venezuela instead of Iran, due to international sanctions against the Islamic Republic. The fear is that Chávez would then sell those weapons to Tehran. He seems determined to prevent U.N. sanctions from having any real impact, given his gasoline sales to Iran and his efforts to strengthen financial ties. Shortly after the S-300 news broke, the Venezuelan strongman made his latest visit to Iran, where he signed several energy and economic deals. As Bloomberg News reported, citing Iranian media coverage, “Iran and Venezuela also agreed to set up a joint oil shipping company and jointly construct petrochemical plants.” An Iranian government official subsequently announced that Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA would be investing $780 million in the South Pars gas field, located in southern Iran.
Such energy cooperation is a fairly visible manifestation of the Venezuela-Iran alliance. Their financial cooperation is more insidious. Since 2008, Iran’s Banco Internacional de Desarrollo has been operating in Caracas, despite being sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for its links to the Iranian armed forces. Speaking to the Brookings Institution in 2009, former New York City district attorney Robert Morgenthau warned that “a foothold into the Venezuelan banking system is a perfect ‘sanctions-busting’ method” for the Iranian theocracy. That same year, the two countries established a joint bank in Tehran with a $200 million capital base. The stated goal was eventually to have that amount reach $1.2 billion.
Chávez has already demonstrated his willingness to serve as Tehran’s banking partner. If he is now going to start procuring sophisticated weapons (e.g., the S-300s) for the mullahs, bilateral relations have been elevated to a new level. That is alarming, but not altogether surprising. After all, the Associated Press has reported that a 2009 Israeli foreign ministry document accused Venezuela (and Bolivia) of providing Tehran with uranium. As Morgenthau noted in his Brookings speech, Venezuela is home to an estimated 50,000 tons of uranium reserves.
Here are the questions we must ask: Is the Iranian drive to obtain nuclear weapons the most serious threat to peace in the world today? And is Iran still the leading state sponsor of terrorism? Most Republicans and Democrats would agree that the answers are emphatically “yes” and “yes.” So why aren’t U.S. lawmakers paying more attention to the Chávez-Ahmadinejad alliance? It’s widely accepted that Venezuela (1) has been directly aiding the Colombian FARC terrorists and (2) has become a haven for other terror groups, including Hezbollah. Indeed, two years ago the U.S. Treasury Department formally accused the Chávez government of “employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers.”
We also know that Caracas has purchased billions’ worth of Russian military hardware and is working to create its own version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. But are all those Russian arms solely for the pro-Chávez militias? Or is Venezuela planning to funnel at least some of the weapons to its allies in Tehran?
Right now, America is in campaign mode, and domestic matters (the economy, health care, government spending) are dominating the national conversation. But there’s a very good chance that Iran will be the most important U.S. foreign-policy issue of 2011, regardless of whether Israel launches a military strike against its nuclear facilities. Any debate over how to confront Iran should include a serious discussion over how to handle Tehran’s satellite regime in Latin America. Willful neglect is no longer an option.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.