Uriel Heilman - Iran in Latin America
Iran in Latin America: Serious Threat or Axis of Annoyance?

Iran in Latin America: Serious Threat or Axis of Annoyance?

At first, nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary when a convoy of trucks bearing 22 containers labeled "tractor parts" arrived in the Turkish port city of Mersin one day in late December 2008 for export to Venezuela.

The containers had come from Iran, which ships many of its goods through Turkey, and they were on their way to a country with which Iran now conducts robust trade in a variety of industries, including agriculture. The shipment bore the tags of Veniran Tractor, a joint Venezuelan-Iranian enterprise with a website, and offices in the southeastern Venezuelan city of Ciudad Bolívar.

But something must have caught the eyes of Turkish customs agents in the port, because they demanded to inspect the shipping containers. Once opened, the cargo was found not to contain tractor parts at all, but barrels of chemicals labeled "Danger" and a host of other suspicious materials. The customs agents sent the cargo to the Turkish military for analysis, and the report confirmed their suspicions: There was enough material in the containers to build an explosives lab. Turkish authorities seized the material.

When confronted with the evidence, an Iranian diplomat in Ankara dismissed the shipment as "nothing important."

The incident is one of countless revelations that have authorities around the world concerned about the burgeoning relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. These two seemingly incongruous countries-one a secular, socialist state, the other an Islamic theocracy-have grown increasingly close in recent years.

The countries' two presidents, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, frequently visit each other's capitals; trade is up sharply between the two nations from a decade ago; the countries have signed some 200 cooperative agreements; there are now weekly flights between Caracas and Tehran, and Iran's diplomatic offices in Venezuela are among Tehran's biggest in the world.

Iran's inroads into Latin America go beyond Venezuela. Tehran is expanding its relationships all over the region, especially with Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador.

This is partly because, despite their differences, the governments of Iran and these Latin American countries share something very significant in common: hostility toward the West, particularly the United States.

"Since Ahmadinejad's rise to power," a 2009 Israeli Foreign Ministry assessment said, "Tehran has been promoting an aggressive policy aimed at bolstering its ties with Latin American countries with the declared goal of 'bringing America to its knees.'"

In South America, Iran has found natural allies: countries that share Iran's view of the West, are considered troublemakers by the United States, are in America's own backyard and don't agree with the European, American and Israeli stance on Iran's nuclear program.

But it's about more than that. As the West has sought to isolate Iran in a bid to end its suspected nuclear weapons program, Iran has reached out to forge alliances wherever possible to thwart diplomatic, economic, and military sanctions. It's done so partly by spreading money around, investing in various infrastructure projects around Latin America.

This has made openness to Tehran commercially beneficial for Latin American nations. Iran has agreed to help develop cash-strapped Bolivia's oil and natural gas sector, pledged $120 million to build a hydroelectric plant in Nicaragua, drills for oil with Brazil, exports liquefied propane to Ecuador, and underwrites dozens of projects in Venezuela, ranging from cement companies to a bicycle outfit.

"In the U.S. attempt to isolate the Iranian government, Ahmadinejad decided to actively forge alliances in America's backyard; Venezuela became the linchpin," said Manochehr Dorraj, professor of international affairs at Texas Christian University and an Iran native.

Iran is not only interested in regimes tilted against the United States. Aside from the staunchly socialist governments of Chavez and his allies, now Brazil-South America's economic powerhouse-is bolstering ties with Iran, too. Ahmadinejad visited Brazil last November in the first-ever visit to Brasilia by an Iranian head of state, and he signed a series of agreements aimed at boosting commercial, cultural, scientific, and technological cooperation. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who visited Tehran in May, has steadfastly insisted on Iran's right to nuclear power, despite the Western conviction that Iran's nuclear program is geared toward making weapons, not simply nuclear energy.

Iran's relationships in Latin America give Iran more than diplomatic leverage against U.N. sanctions and U.S.-led efforts at isolation. With the West trying to clamp down on trade with Iran in an attempt to get the Iranian regime to give up its suspected nuclear weapons program, Tehran has found in Latin America trade partners willing to buck the attempts to cut Iran off from the global financial system.

Some of this trade is conducted openly, but much of it is illicit, and the true depth and nature of these relationships and their benefits to each side remain opaque. Experts, including the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) Financial monitors say Iran operates front companies and banks in Venezuela that allow Tehran to use Venezuela's sophisticated banking system to circumvent international sanctions by laundering money and fraudulently conducting business under Venezuelan names.

Beyond financial slight of hand, watchdog groups suspect the worst: that Iran and Latin American governments or guerilla groups are collaborating on weapons development and trade, military training, and even uranium enrichment.

"We see the presence of Iranians in Latin America, but nobody knows what they're doing," said Adriana Camisar, the assistant director for Latin American affairs at B'nai B'rith International's Center for Human Rights and Public Policy in Washington. "It's very secretive. Nobody really knows what's going on."

And as the Turkish port incident of December 2008 and other discoveries indicate, those activities provide reasons to be concerned.

"The problem is very simple," said the director of the South American desk of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Alexander Ben Zvi. "Unfortunately, Iran is not Switzerland. Iran identifies with all the murderous terrorist groups. On this continent, we have a very good example of what can happen: the two attacks in Argentina in 1992 and 1994. This is the central danger."

The terrorist threat

On March 17, 1992, a suicide bomber driving a pickup truck detonated his charge in front of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, destroying the embassy building and a nearby church and school. Twenty-nine people were killed, most of them Argentineans.

A little more than two years later, on July 18, 1994, another bomber struck a Jewish target in Buenos Aires, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish community center at 633 Pasteur Street. This time, 85 people were killed, making the bombing Argentina's deadliest terrorist attack in history.

In both cases, the signs pointed to Iranian involvement. Responsibility for the embassy attack was claimed by the Islamic Jihad Organization, which had links to Iran and to Hezbollah-itself a recipient of funding, training, and logistical support from its Shiite co-religionists in Tehran. In 1998, Argentina's government expelled seven Iranian diplomats from the country for their suspected involvement in the bombing. The suspects were never prosecuted, however, and nobody was ever charged for orchestrating the bombing.

In the AMIA case, the investigation was marked by cover-ups and incompetence, and years passed without any significant arrests. In 2005, the federal judge in charge of the case was impeached, and new prosecutor, Alberto Nissman, launched a new, more professional investigation. The following year, Nissman formally charged Iran and Hezbollah for the attack. Interpol eventually issued arrest warrants for six Iranian officials in connection with the bombing. One is Iran's current defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi.

Iran denies any connection to the bombing and has refused to hand over the suspects.

There are various theories for why Iran chose Buenos Aires for its anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli attacks. Some charge that Iran had the cooperation of the Argentine government, at the time led by President Carlos Menem. Others theorize that Iran chose to strike in Argentina to punish the government there for backpedaling on some joint nuclear projects. Many believe Iran and its operatives in Hezbollah chose the Argentine sites as targets of opportunity: A combination of factors made them ideal for perpetrating a successful bombing.

What's worrisome about this picture, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is that many of the same factors in place in Argentina in the lead-up to the AMIA attack are in place today in Venezuela.

In 1994, Dubowitz said, Argentina had a government that was sympathetic to Iranian interests and was basically anti-Semitic. The two countries had strong intelligence ties, and Iran's intelligence service operated out of the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires. Hezbollah and Iran were both interested in bombing a Jewish or Israeli target, Hezbollah allegedly in response to the assassination of some of its own officials. Argentina's large and poorly defended Jewish community presented an attractive target.

"Fast forward to 2010 and you have a similar set of factors at play," Dubowitz told B'nai B'rith Magazine.

Hezbollah, he noted, has threatened to respond to the February 2008 assassination of Imad Mugniyeh by striking Israeli targets overseas. Mugniyeh, a top Hezbollah official connected to numerous terrorist attacks, including the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing, was killed in a car bombing in Damascus. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but Israel was blamed for it.

Meanwhile, experts say Iran is using its embassies in Latin America as bases of operations for nefarious activities. In the last three years, Iran has opened or reopened embassies in Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Bolivia. The embassy in Caracas is considered the main gateway, serving as a conduit for Iranians to enter the country, obtain Venezuelan passports, and then carry out military and economic activities posing as Venezuelans.

"Someone who enters Caracas can move freely within Latin America," Yiftah Curiel, an Israeli Embassy official in Argentina, said. "The relationship between Venezuela and Iran is a threat to all of Latin America."

The elite military wing of the regime, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has offices in Iranian embassies worldwide, much like the CIA operates out of U.S. embassies. Experts, including Fred Burton and Scott Stewart of the Global Security and Intelligence Report, say the IRGC works through Iran's embassies to train local groups in guerilla and terrorist warfare, including providing Hezbollah with logistical support..

"With friendly host governments who allow the comings and goings of all kinds of people, this gives the Iranians a free hand to engage in all kinds of activity," Dan Mariaschin, B'nai B'rith International's executive vice president, said.

Dubowitz says it's just a matter of time before the situation explodes-literally.

"I strongly believe we will see a major terrorist attack in the foreseeable future," he said. "From their perspective, it may be useful to hit Jewish communities in places like Colombia or Mexico- to send a strong message to the United States and to really strike fear in places whose governments are pro-American but where the population may be receptive to the message that it may be because of your pro-American stance that you brought these atrocities upon us."

The dangers of Iranian terrorism in the region are not limited to Jewish or Israeli targets. Ideological terrorist groups like Hezbollah are colluding with other militant groups in the region, including narco-terrorists involved in the illicit drug trade. Starting with fund-raising and moving to money laundering, military training, and weapons procurement, these outlaw groups are making common cause, these experts say.

"The [IRGC] is spreading the doctrine of asymmetrical warfare into the Nicaraguan military," Dorraj said. "In the camps of FARC"-a narco-terrorist group of Colombian guerillas-"they have found some Iranian manuals. Because a large number of Lebanese have migrated to Latin America, Hezbollah has a base of support among the population in these countries that are increasingly active and receptive to extremist political messages."

One of the most fertile areas for this extremism is in the so-called Tri-Border Area, a remote, largely lawless region where the countries of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil converge.

Long known as a haven for smugglers of everything from cocaine and cigarettes to livestock, the Tri-Border Area has a significant Arab population, many of them Lebanese who migrated to South America during Lebanon's civil war in the 1980s. Hezbollah's activities there, including recruitment, training, and financing of terrorist activities, have made it a hotbed of anti-Western sentiment and activity, and an area of global concern.

In 2007, a young Muslim in the area told the Spanish-language TV station Telemundo he was willing to fight America to defend Iran.

"If he attacks Iran, in two minutes Bush is dead," the man, identified as Mustafa Khalil Meri, said. "I am Hezbollah. We are Muslims, and we will defend our countries at any time they are attacked."

Arabs aren't the only ones terrorists are cultivating in South America. In some areas, indigenous people have converted to Islam and embraced Hezbollah's radical ideology.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. officials expressed concern that the area could serve as a staging ground for attacks against the United States. Hezbollah operatives, they noted, could sneak into the United States without raising suspicions because they have Latin American passports, speak Spanish, and look Hispanic.

The nuclear question

With Iran racing to become a nuclear power, Israel is concerned not just about Iranian sponsorship of terrorist activities, but how Latin American countries may be abetting Iran's nuclear program.

"You have to look at Iran in all of its parts. The main focus is the nuclear program," Mariaschin said. "One of the most interesting and potentially dangerous and threatening aspects to the whole Iranian picture is what they're doing in Latin America."

Both Bolivia and Venezuela have significant amounts of uranium deposits, and Israel believes the two countries are supplying Iran with uranium, a key component needed to make a nuclear bomb. While Venezuelan officials adamantly deny any such transfer, they have said publicly that Venezuela gets assistance from Iran in the detection and testing of uranium deposits in Venezuela. Last September, Chavez announced that he planned to create a "nuclear village" in Venezuela with the help of Iran, and that he had an agreement with Russia to develop nuclear energy in his country.

Such announcements have fueled concern that Venezuela-an oil-rich nation that gets most of its electricity supply from hydro power-also may be seeking nuclear weapons. Venezuela is a signatory to the 1967 Tlatelolco Treaty, which prohibits developing nuclear weapons in Latin America.

While outsiders have questioned Venezuela's motives, Chavez insists they're peaceful. "We're not going to make an atomic bomb," Chavez said last September, "so don't bother us the way you're bothering Iran."

Venezuela isn't the only Latin American nation in the nuclear game. Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico all have nuclear power plants, and Chile and Uruguay have initiated pilot projects to study the feasibility of nuclear energy programs. Of these countries, only Brazil is suspected of having a current covert weapons program. Argentina had such a program for decades, in competition with Brazil, but is believed to have ended it by 1995.

An ally of the United States and a stable democracy, Brazil is not considered a nuclear threat, nor do experts suspect that it is providing material support to Iran's nuclear program.

But Brazil's current government has given Iran diplomatic backing for its nuclear aspirations, perhaps with Brazil's own nuclear hopes in mind. Brazil's president, Lula, repeatedly has insisted that Iran has a right to nuclear power for peaceful purposes and said the standoff over Iran's program can be resolved without further U.N. sanctions.

Brazil has another reason for its diplomatic support of Iran: Brazil is mounting a campaign for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and is trying to muster support from wherever possible. So for the meantime, Brazil's government is dancing the delicate dance of supporting Iran's right to nuclear power while promising the United States and Europe that it will not countenance the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The diplomatic front

With the standoff over Iran's nuclear program showing no sign of ending anytime soon, Iran, too, is trying to muster as many friends as possible.

In particular, in Iran's courtship of nations on the U.N. Security Council in order to stave off additional sanctions, its friendships in Latin America -- - including Brazil, which holds one of the council's 10 rotating seats - have come in handy.

Most Latin American nations are also members of the Non-Aligned Movement, a bloc of countries that bands together to represent the interests of mostly underdeveloped countries against those of the major powers. The movement covers almost all the countries of Africa, the Middle East (excluding Israel), Southeast Asia, and Latin America, comprising some two-thirds of the U.N. General Assembly. Members of the movement generally support each other's interests in the United Nations, which is why anti-Israel resolutions proposed by Arab states are guaranteed virtual automatic passage in the U.N. General Assembly.

Because General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, they do not provide a forum for the contest over sanctions. But these countries either can help enforce international sanctions against Iran or dilute their effect by helping Tehran find ways-legal or illegal-to circumvent them.

This is where the lobbying of non-governmental organizations like B'nai B'rith International comes in. In their meetings with diplomats worldwide, B'nai B'rith officials push for sanctions, arguing that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat not just to Israel and the West, but to the entire world.

In Latin America, where B'nai B'rith has extensive relationships, organizational officials argue that Iran's presence on the continent is dangerous for the governments and people of Latin America.

"We have said to the governments that the problem of Iran in Latin America is that we are importing a danger to the region," said BBI's Montevideo-based director of Latin American affairs, Eduardo Kohn. "We can have bombings anytime. We are importing a state sponsor of terrorism to be associated [with] countries that would like to live in peace."

It's not always an easy argument. Israel's ambassador to Uruguay, Yoel Barnea, said that in his meetings with Uruguayan officials, they "make clear to us they don't share any of Iran's extreme views, but at the same time, they say they cannot ignore trade between Uruguay and Iran."

With its presence in 18 of the 34 countries of the Organization of American States, B'nai B'rith presses hard to make sure that concerns about Iran are on the radar of governments in the region. B'nai B'rith officials also meet with members of the U.S. administration to underscore concerns about Iran and monitor what is happening on the ground in Latin America.

"The most important thing that an NGO like us can do is connect the dots, do our own information gathering, and then, on top of that, to-based on our discussions with diplomats from Latin America-get a real picture of what is happening," Mariaschin said. "There's a real witches brew here between the Venezuelans and the Iranians, and we need to be sounding the alarm on this."

Ultimately, Dorraj said, developments within Iran itself may be the most significant determinant of whether Iran's relationships in Latin America blossom or wither.

Iran has made friends in Latin America by spreading money around. But with Iran in the midst of an economic downturn due to the global recession and the restrictions of U.N. sanctions, money is in short supply. Many of Iran's financial pledges in Latin America go unfulfilled. Brazil's Iran largest trading partner in Latin America, has not shown a willingness to enable Iranian-sponsored terrorism or give Iran the base of operations for illicit financial transactions that experts say Venezuela provides.

Much of Iran's activity in Latin America has come at Ahmadinejad's behest, and Ahmadinejad's closest alliance in the region is based in part on his personal chemistry with Chavez. Once Ahmadinejad exits Iran's presidency, that dynamic is likely to change. A new president might set Iran's sights elsewhere. Likewise, new leadership in Latin America may shift away from Tehran.

Finally, even the socialist governments of countries like Bolivia and Venezuela eventually may find themselves at ideological loggerheads with Tehran. Already, the change in tone in Washington from the Bush era to the Obama era has softened the anti-American tenor of Latin America's socialist leaders. If economic circumstances change, the secular socialists in those countries may find Iran's Shiite theocracy an incompatible friend.

"I don't see this as the beginning of a massive expansion of Latin America-Iran ties; I see this as a phase," Dorraj said. "Should the global alliance of forces change, so would this particular phase, and some of the alarming signs we see now might subside."

© Uriel Heilman 2010. All rights reserved.