The revelation that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Quds Force had plotted to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States – by blowing him up as he dined at a Washington restaurant – is a stark reminder of the nature of the Tehran regime and its ambitions. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story is that Iran’s thugs are developing a strategic partnership with Mexico’s most violent thugs: Los Zetas may only be the second-largest drug cartel in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s rankings, but they’re probably the most lethal. The gang is said to have formed around a platoon’s worth of deserters from Mexico’s special operations forces, and became the elite troops of another Mexican drug organization, the Gulf Cartel. The leader of that cartel got himself arrested, and the Zetas moved out on their own.
The Zetas have shot their way to prominence ever since, in turf wars with other gangs and in a number of spectacular massacres. This past August, the Zetas conducted a mounted raid on the Casino Royale – yes, the Casino Royale – in Monterrey in Nuevo Leon. After gunning down a few gamblers and guards at the entrance, they then doused the premises with gasoline and set the entrance ablaze. New reports indicate that more than 60 were killed, and another 35 trapped inside the building. The purpose of the attack appears to be simple retaliation for the Calderon government’s crackdown on the cartels, to demonstrate vividly that Mexican security forces – 3,000 were sent to restore order in Monterey – could not control what amounts to an insurgent group. The attack was mostly an act of political symbolism.
The alliance with the Zetas is only the tip of the Iranian iceberg in Latin America. As Roger Noriega and Jose Cardenas have recently written, “Iran has made the Western Hemisphere a priority….The real game changer has been the alliance developed between Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.” In addition to the Quds Force, Iran often operates through Hezbollah, which has established networks in the Lebanese communities that have long-standing enclaves in the trading and port cities of South America. In addition to Chavez, Iran has established closer ties to the Bolivian government of Evo Morales’s and Rafael Correa’s regime in Ecuador.
No one has tracked the increasing strategic cooperation between Iran, other anti-America states, international criminal, and narco-gangs than Douglas Farah of the International Assessment and Strategy Center. Recently, he testified to the House Homeland Security Committee that:
We see the further empowerment, training and technological support [to] the oppressive security apparatuses in the increasingly undemocratic Bolivarian states provided by the Iran-Hezbollah-IRGC/Quds Force combine….[They] are the sharpest edge of the sword at present, and the one most openly aimed at the United States, and the one least tractable to diplomacy.
To many long-time Iran watchers, the bungled bomb plot “reeks of desperation,” as Mathew Levitt, a former Treasury Department terrorism official put it. The ubiquitous Robert Baer sniffed: “Maybe things have really fallen apart in Tehran….[T]he Quds are better than this. If they wanted to come after you, you’d be dead already.” But there’s also the sloppiness that comes from overconfidence, miscalculating not only your adversary’s abilities but your own. Tactical sloppiness often goes hand in hand – and sometimes results from – strategic design.
We underestimate the Quds-Zeta partnership at our peril. The distinction between law enforcement and warfare is increasingly blurred; the Mexican government claims it had a hand in exposing the plot and it was a DEA agent who foiled the attack. While the Obama administration was right to bring charges against the operatives who plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador, this is a response to symptoms, not the disease. The larger problem is the maturing anti-America coalition governments and extremely rich, powerful, and violent groups; thinking of these organizations simply as criminals obscures their political interests – in keeping governments like Mexico’s or Colombia’s weak, in securing sanctuary, in access to the “international commons,” and the like. An appropriate response demands an integrated strategy. The biggest danger is not “militarizing” U.S. policy but in failing to address the fundamental security issues at stake.