OpinionOp-EdIran on our back porch

Iran on our back porch

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USA TODAY: The Iranian regime’s activities in Latin America are extensive – and evolving. Last week, Argentine state prosecutor Alberto Nisman dropped a bombshell when heissuedhis long-awaited indictment in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israel Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires. USA TODAY

Ilan Berman

The Iranian regime’s activities in Latin America are extensive – and evolving.

Last week, Argentine state prosecutor Alberto Nisman dropped a bombshell when heissuedhis long-awaited indictment in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israel Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires. The 502-page report pins the blame for the attack — which killed 85 and wounded hundreds more in what experts call Latin America’s 9/11 — squarely on the Islamic Republic of Iran. In doing so, it provides a timely reminder that Iran’s radical regime is active in the Western Hemisphere and that its presence here is far broader than is commonly understood.

Just how much is still a matter of considerable debate. Iran’s activities in the Americas have exploded over the past eight years, propelled in large part by the warm personal ties between outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and recently-deceased Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. Using Venezuela as a gateway into the region, Tehran succeeded in forging strategic partnerships with like-minded governments in Bolivia and Ecuador, and expanding its contacts with Peru, Nicaragua and a number of other regional players.

Despite these gains, however, some experts still tend to see Iran’s efforts as little more than an “axis of annoyance.” But Nisman’s indictment convincingly says otherwise.

Over the past three decades, the Argentine brief alleges, Iran has succeeded in quietly erecting a network of intelligence bases and covert centers that spans no fewer than eight Latin American countries: Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname. This infrastructure was instrumental in allowing Iranian proxies to carry out the AMIA bombing, as well as to plot other attacks (such as an unsuccessful 2007 attempt by Guyanese national Abdul Kadir to blow up fuel tanks at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport).

Moreover, Nisman has made clear the network enabling Iran to carry out attacks in the region, or against the United States, isn’t simply a relic of history. Rather, there’s good reason to believe that it remains both intact and functioning.

In fact, it could soon get even bigger. That is because the Latin American region as a whole is in a state of profound political flux. In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chavez as president this past April, is presiding over an all-out implosion of the national economy, complete with shortages on commodities such as toilet paper, sugar and flour. Next door in Colombia, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has embarked upon a complicated and controversial peace process with the extremist FARC militia — one that could result in the FARC gaining significantly in both political relevance and actual power. Even in Nisman’s own Argentina, a new and softer attitude toward Iran has begun to take root, manifested in growing bilateral trade ties and talks of a “truth commission” to reexamine the AMIA case (and, ostensibly, to rewrite history in Tehran’s favor). These developments could provide new opportunities for Iran to expand its regional influence and its strategic capabilities.

America, meanwhile, is still struggling to craft a coherent response to Iran’s regional ambitions. Policymakers in Washington were jolted awake to Iran’s activities south of the border in October of 2011, when law enforcement agencies foiled a plot orchestrated by a faction of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps operating in South America to assassinate Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, in a Washington, D.C. restaurant.

In response, legislation authored last year by enterprising freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., mandated that the State Department develop a strategy to “counter Iran in the Western Hemisphere.” The bill sailed through Congress and was signed into law by President Obama back in December. But whether that strategy, when it does materialize this summer, will be broad enough to address the extent of Iran’s presence in the Western Hemisphere is still very much an open question.

It will need to be. As Nisman’s investigation and resulting indictment indicates, the Iranian regime’s activities in Latin America are extensive — and evolving. So is the threat that it poses, both to our allies in the region and to the U.S. homeland itself.

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