MANAGUA — Claims by neoconservatives and other right-wingers that Iranian influence in Latin America poses a growing security threat to the United States seem exaggerated, at best, with recent allegations that Tehran sought the help of an Iranian-American used-car salesman in a high-profile assassination plot.
Overblown though they may be, those wide-ranging claims have been frequently aired on Capitol Hill.
At a July hearing of the House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, Chairman Patrick Meehan, a Republican from Pennsylvania, charged that Hezbollah has a “growing operation in Latin America” that involves “recruiting operatives” as well as “smuggling weapons and drugs” — an operation he claimed is fully backed by both Venezuela and Iran.
“When you put that together,” Meehan said, “you have a fully functioning, easily accessible terrorist network with a ready capacity to act if so inclined.”
Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush and now a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), agreed.
He alleged that Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at the heart of the alleged assassination plot, and Hezbollah were carrying out a “conscious, offensive strategy to carry their fight to our doorstep.”
They had created “at least two parallel terrorist networks [that are] growing at an alarming rate in Latin America,” Noriega testified. One network, he said, was “managed by a cadre of notorious [Quds] operatives.”
Their activities, he went on, ranged from “narcotics smuggling” to “weapons and explosives training to drug trafficking organizations that operate along the U.S. border with Mexico.”
But claims of close ties among Iran, Hezbollah, and Latin American drug cartels, particularly in Mexico, appear at odds with the case presented by the administration of Barack Obama.
On Oct. 11, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was charging two individuals, Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen, and Gholam Shakuri, an alleged Quds officer, in a murder-for-hire plot that had targeted Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington.
According to the complaint, Arbabsiar offered an undercover government informant, whom he believed to be a member of Mexico’s Los Zetas cartel, $1.5 million to carry out the assassination.
“This conspiracy was conceived, sponsored, and directed from Iran,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at a press conference, while the complaint itself alleged the operation was “directed by factions of the Iranian government.”
President Obama subsequently pledged to “make sure that Iran is further and further isolated and pays a price for this kind of behavior.”
Serious questions have been raised about the official story since the charges were announced, especially given the paucity of evidence the government has disclosed to date.
Iran specialists have questioned why Tehran would have an interest in assassinating the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil, while counterterrorism experts have expressed doubt that the Quds Force, whose tradecraft is generally highly regarded, would rely on someone as inexperienced as Arbabsiar to arrange a high-stakes act of terrorism.
Arbabsiar has been described by his Texas neighbors and associates as bumbling and absent-minded, with a history of failed business ventures.
So far, the only explanations for Iran’s reliance on Arbabsiar are background comments of unidentified “U.S. officials” who reportedly told The Washington Post on Oct. 14 that Abdul Reza Shahlai, a senior Quds officer related to Arbabsiar, “hoped that Arbabsiar, by virtue of his time in Texas, might be able to get in touch with Mexican drug traffickers.”
But if that version of the story is true, it casts serious doubts on claims from right-wing hawks, such as Meehan and Noriega, about the extent of Iran and Hezbollah’s operations in Latin America.
If the Islamic Republic had extensive dealings with drug cartels, particularly in Mexico, it would not have needed assistance, especially from the untried Arbabsiar, reaching out to those groups to carry out a terror plot of major geopolitical significance.
Indeed, in light of the Obama administration’s criminal allegations, those claims of Iranian influence appear strikingly over the top.
In an address before the 2010 national conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Jaime Daremblum, a senior fellow at the neoconservative Hudson Institute who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1998 to 2004, described the expanding ties between Iran and Latin America in decidedly ominous terms.
“I must confess that, after years of closely observing Iran’s strategies abroad, I find its growing presence in Latin America to be the most disturbing geopolitical development the region is facing today,” Daremblum remarked.
“Iran’s presence is messianic in its goals, relentless in its tactics. It is intimately related to narcoterrorism, both in its own practice and in the groups and activities it sponsors.”
Those almost apocalyptic claims were echoed at the July hearing chaired by Congressman Meehan. Witnesses told lawmakers that Iran and Hezbollah, whose agenda, they maintained, is dictated by Iran, had thoroughly infiltrated Latin America, with one central goal: striking the United States.
“Mexico’s shared border with the United States makes it an attractive operating base for Hezbollah activities aimed at penetrating the U.S. homeland,” testified Ilan Berman, a part-time consultant to the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency who is vice president of the neoconservative American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC).
Hezbollah, he said, had developed an “extensive organizational network” over the last 15 years “in places such as Tijuana,” and it “partners with drug cartels active in the country.”
Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington think tank that often works with the U.S. government and advocates a “strong national defense posture,” echoed that assessment, calling “the presence of Hezbollah and its primary sponsor, the government of Iran” a “significant and growing threat to the U.S.”
Specifically, he cited “growing concern that Hezbollah is providing the technology for the increasingly sophisticated narco tunnels being found along the U.S.-Mexico border, which strongly resemble the type used [by Hezbollah] in Lebanon.”
Earlier this month, Noriega and Jose Cardenas, also from AEI, published a paper, “The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America,” that reaffirmed Noriega’s testimony before Congress. “Evidence indicates Hezbollah is sharing its terrorist experience and techniques with Mexican drug cartels along the border,” the paper asserted.
That charge, published only a week before the Justice Department released its complaint, appears seriously unsubstantiated in light of the Obama administration’s claim that elements of the Iranian government sought to contact those very drug cartels not by reaching out to its allies in Hezbollah, but by contacting a used-car salesman in Texas.
If the official story is flawed, however, and the alleged assassination plot was not in fact a scheme designed by senior elements of the Iranian regime, that too would suggest Iran and its purported proxy’s dealings in Latin America are not as threatening as U.S. hawks claim — and that the dire threat its influence in the region poses to the United States has, yet again, failed to materialize.
Jim Lobe contributed to this story.
(Inter Press Service)