In late June, the State Department issued a controversial report on Iranian activity in the Western Hemisphere. Its most notable conclusion was that “Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning.” Critics immediately pointed out that, just a month earlier, Argentine special prosecutor Alberto Nisman had released a 500-page report showing that Tehran has “clandestine intelligence stations and operative agents” scattered across the region. The obvious question was: Why hadn’t Foggy Bottom considered the Nisman dossier before publishing its recommendations? In an August 1 letter to GOP senator Mark Kirk, State Department official Thomas Gibbons explained that “the Nisman report was made public after our report was completed.” However, Gibbons assured Senator Kirk that Foggy Bottom has asked the intelligence community to review the Nisman findings in a timely manner.
While they’re at it, U.S. officials might also take note of a front-page story in Sunday’s Washington Post, which describes an Iranian “outreach” program that “has brought hundreds of Latin Americans to Iran for intensive Spanish-language instruction in Iranian religion and culture, much of it supervised by a man who is wanted internationally on terrorism charges” (my emphasis). The terrorist supervisor is an Iranian cleric named Mohsen Rabbani, whom Nisman has identified as the mastermind of a 1994 bombing that destroyed the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires, leaving 85 people dead and hundreds more injured. Since 2007, more than a thousand Latin Americans have received schooling in Iran, “mostly under Rabbani’s supervision,” according to a report cited by the Post. Predictably, the Iranian schooling includes a heavy dose of anti-American and Islamist propaganda. A Mexican student who spent three months in Iran told the Post that certain students were subjected to “weeks of theological and political indoctrination.” Some of them, in his words, became “crazy-obsessed” with the Iranian revolution.
Coming on the heels of Nisman’s report, the Post story should heighten concerns about Iran’s penetration of Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the past three decades, Tehran has deployed and cultivated agents throughout the hemisphere, everywhere from Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago to Argentina and Brazil to Chile and Colombia. These agents helped orchestrate both the 1994 AMIA massacre and the 1992 bombing of Israel’s Buenos Aires embassy, which killed 29 and injured hundreds. They also plotted to bomb New York City’s JFK International Airport, a plot that was foiled by U.S. authorities in 2007. A key player in the airport bomb scheme was Guyanese national Abdul Kadir, an Iranian agent who, according to Nisman, “had repeated contacts with Mohsen Rabbani” prior to his arrest. (Rabbani is still wanted by Interpol for his role in the AMIA attack.) Testimony from an informant suggests that Kadir and his fellow terrorist operatives “wanted to form an organization like Hezbollah in the Caribbean.” Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terror group based in Lebanon, was responsible for both the 1992 and the 1994 bombings in Buenos Aires.
Writing in this space last month, I discussed the Nisman findings and reviewed Iran’s recent efforts to expand its Latin American footprint. Those efforts include (1) establishing new embassies, diplomatic missions, and “cultural centers” across the region, (2) dispatching members of the elite Iranian Quds Force (according to a 2010 Pentagon report), and (3) strengthening relations with leftist, anti-U.S. governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Rather than rehash all the evidence of Iranian activity, I want to focus on the terror threat in particular.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2011, the head of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Douglas Fraser, affirmed that “members of violent extremist organizations from the Middle East remain active in Latin America and the Caribbean and constitute a potential threat.” He mentioned Hezbollah’s fundraising activities specifically, adding that “several entities affiliated with Islamic extremism are increasing efforts to recruit adherents in the region.”
Around the same time that General Fraser delivered his testimony, the Brazilian magazine Veja reported that members of al-Qaeda were operating in Latin America’s biggest country, along with members of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terror groups. A few months after that, a retired Peruvian general told the Jerusalem Post that Iranian-backed terrorist organizations were collaborating with other terror groups in South America. And a few months after that, U.S. authorities thwarted an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington with the help of a Mexican drug cartel—a shocking plan that highlighted the audacious, menacing nature of the regime in Tehran.
Jump ahead to January 2012: According to journalist Sebastian Rotella, Iranian and Venezuelan officials held a secret meeting at which “Venezuelan spymasters agreed to provide systematic help to Iran with intelligence infrastructure such as arms, identification documents, bank accounts, and pipelines for moving operatives and equipment between Iran and Latin America.” Iranian and Hezbollah operatives are already highly active in the notorious Tri-Border Area (TBA)—formed by the intersection of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay—which has long been a haven for all sorts of criminals, and is home to a relatively large Lebanese population. “Since 2006,” notes a recent Congressional Research Service report, “the Treasury Department has sanctioned over a dozen individuals and several entities in the TBA for providing financial support to Hezbollah leadership in Lebanon.”
It’s also worth recalling a few news items that haven’t received nearly enough attention in the American media. In October 2006, a pair of explosive devices were discovered close to the U.S. embassy in Caracas. Shortly thereafter, a group declaring itself “Hezbollah Latin America” claimed responsibility for planting the bombs, and vowed to launch more attacks in the future. We still don’t know much about this group, or its capabilities, but we do know that Hezbollah has been expanding its operations in Latin America, including its recruitment efforts and its ties to drug cartels.
The case of Mexican national Jameel Nasr is especially disturbing. Arrested by Mexican officials in Tijuana in 2010, Nasr was apparently part of a Hezbollah-directed terror apparatus. According to a Kuwaiti newspaper account cited by Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, Nasr, who frequently visited Lebanon, was trying to establish “a logistics infrastructure of Mexican citizens of Shiite Lebanese descent that will form a base in South America and the United States to carry out operations against Israeli and Western targets.” He aroused suspicion among Mexican authorities with his “long visit to Venezuela in mid-2008,” a trip that was aimed at “building a network for Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”
In other words, we have compelling evidence that Iran and Hezbollah have built—and are still building—a lethal operational structure in the Western Hemisphere. The Obama administration may not want to “over-dramatize” the issue (in the words of Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer), but it cannot pretend the threat doesn’t exist.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.