No. 584 July – August 2011
- Ever since Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, Iran has been working resolutely to establish a foothold in the Latin American countries – in the U.S.’ backyard. The Iranian president’s partners in promoting this policy are the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia, who provide him with a springboard for activity in Latin America.
- Iran is exploiting its growing ties and common interests with Latin American countries to deploy there its familiar pieces from the Middle Eastern and African chessboards. Those “pieces” include subversive and propaganda activity, terror and smuggling, and the development of long-range military capabilities. In this context, there have been reports that Iran is seeking to establish a missile base in Venezuela, at the doorstep of the “great Satan.”
- In addition to terror and criminal activity by Iran and Hizbullah among the Muslim base in Latin America, Iran and its emissaries in the region also engage in extensive social, cultural, and religious activity aimed at exporting the Islamic Revolution and, primarily, at disseminating and introducing Shiite Islam, even to the point of converting various populations throughout the continent to Shia.
- Iran’s infrastructures in Latin America could, in time of need, help Iran act against the United States itself or against Western interests in Latin America in various scenarios: if its nuclear installations are attacked by Israel and/or the United States, or if, should Iran’s sense of isolation and encirclement intensify, it seeks to initiate crises with the U.S., perhaps on the model of the Cuban missile crisis. In the interim, Iran is exploiting the relative proximity to the U.S. to illegally penetrate its territory (via Mexico) as well as to prepare a terror and sabotage infrastructure within the U.S. itself.
- The infrastructures Iran is creating – some that are already operative and some in formation – will have a dual impact if Iran manages to obtain nuclear weapons and can operate these infrastructures under the cover of its nuclear umbrella.
Ever since Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, Iran has been working resolutely to establish a foothold in the Latin American countries – the United States’ backyard. Until recently, this region was not of interest to Iran, given the cultural and historical disparities between Iran – even under the Shah, let alone the Islamic Republic – and the countries of the region. The Iranian president’s partners in promoting this policy are the presidents of Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia, who provide him with a springboard for activity in Latin America.
Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez share a revolutionary vision that they present jointly despite the huge differences between their two countries. Both seek to create new, global, hegemonic power on the ruins of American dominance. Chavez views himself as heir to the nineteenth-century revolutionary Simon Bolivar, the “Liberator of the Americas” from the yoke of the Spanish conquest. Ahmadinejad, in his meetings with Latin American officials, misses no opportunity to portray Iran and other countries that espouse an anti-American ideology in Latin America and Africa as worthy substitutes for the United States and the allegedly collapsing capitalism it represents.
For example, in a Tehran meeting with Uruguay’s Foreign Minister Luis Almagro in April 2011, the Iranian president said “under such conditions that the oppressive order ruling the world is moving towards demise and the world needs a fair order, the two countries can have further cooperation with each other in various fields.”1 And in a meeting with the Venezuelan ambassador in Tehran, Ahmadinejad said: “Independent and justice-seeking nations and governments have been vigilant against Imperialism’s plots and would not be deceived by them.”2
Moreover, in an October 2010 meeting with his Bolivian counterpart President Evo Morales, the Iranian president said that “undoubtedly, the reinforcement of the independent nations’ front will benefit the global peace and security, and will further undermine the capitalist system….The course of the history [sic] is changing in favor of the independent nations and we should smartly take advantage of the current situation.”3 Later, in a meeting with the Bolivian president of the Chamber of Deputies, Ahmadinejad reiterated: “Brotherhood and proximity of freedom-seeking nations not only strengthens their resistance vis-à-vis the arrogant powers, but they play a constructive and crucial role in setting up a new world order.”4
In general, Iran’s continued investment in its relations with Latin American countries is part of a strategy aimed, first, at purchasing (in both senses) a foothold for influence in Africa and the Middle East, where countries, in Iran’s view, have been harmed by “American imperialism and exploitation,” and second, at offering a “just” Islamic alternative to supposed American crimes. In this context Iran maintains, at various magnitudes for each country, an extensive network of contacts in the diplomatic, energy, economic-commercial (serving as the main lever of persuasion in recruiting support), and financial (including establishing joint banks to bypass sanctions) spheres, while promoting cooperation with regard to industry, establishing plants, signing mass communications agreements, and the like. On 27 February 2007, Iran staged “The First Conference on the Issue of South America: Its Role and Place in the New International Order,”5 and in December 2008 it presented the first exhibit on the development of Iranian-Latin American economic cooperation.6
In his address to the 65th general session of the UN General Assembly in September 2010, Ahmadinejad stated: “The two vast geographical spheres, namely Africa and Latin America, have gone through historic developments during the past decades….The awareness and wisdom of the leaders of these two continents has overcome the regional problems and crises without the domineering interference of non-regional powers. The Islamic Republic of Iran has expanded its relations with Latin America and Africa in all aspects in recent years.”7 In October 2010, the presidents of Venezuela and (as mentioned) Bolivia visited Iran.
In April 2011, General Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. Southern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran had expanded its ties in Latin America beyond its close relationship with Venezuela. A member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian Majlis(parliament), Mahmoud Ahmadi-Bighash, said: “The U.S. is fearful that the Islamic Revolution in Iran has increased the awakening of Middle Eastern and North African nations.” He further added that “Islamic inspirations are behind the revolutions in the Middle East but the revolution of Latin American countries will pursue” the path of democracy.8
The background of Iran’s vigorous anti-U.S., anti-Western activity on various fronts is its sense of encirclement stemming from Operation Iraqi Freedom and, in recent years, the sanctions aimed at preventing its nuclearization, with its concomitant growing isolation in the international arena. During this time Iran has also been adding an ideological component to the equation. It presents itself – along with those states in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East that, in Iran’s view, are now liberating themselves from the yoke of imperialism by protesting against the old, corrupt, U.S.-supported regimes – as destined to provide a suitable alternative to an America in decline.
Iran under Ahmadinejad’s presidency has constantly sought international and regional recognition of its power and capability to influence both regional issues (the peace process, Iraq, Afghanistan, the stability or overthrow of regimes) and international ones (the nuclear issue, oil and gas prices, the security of navigation in the Persian Gulf). Hence it is attempting to confront the United States with new power equations, one of which involves activity in Latin America – that is, the United States’ backyard, parallel to the American presence in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan that envelops Iran.
As part of the Iranian aspiration to be an “appropriate alternative” to American hegemony, it finds common ideological denominators, despite the vast religious disparity, with the leaders of countries that take an anti-American stance and are prepared to cooperate with Iran in promoting a joint political and economic agenda. Iran, for its part, exploits its ties with these countries to bypass sanctions and obtain dual-use equipment for its nuclear program, while continuing its ties with North Korea in that context, as recently revealed in a United Nations report by a special experts’ committee.9
Iran Deploys Its “Chess Pieces”
Iran is exploiting its growing ties and common interests with Latin American countries to deploy there its familiar pieces from the Middle Eastern and African chessboards, where it displays great activity. Those “pieces” include subversive and propaganda activity (spreading Shiite Islam), terror, and smuggling (drugs, weapons). According to unverified reports in Die Welt, Iran is building, with the assistance of the Khatem al-Anbia command of the Revolutionary Guards, an intermediate-range missile base in Venezuela, while collaborating with Caracas in developing surface-to-surface missiles.10 The German daily claims that according to an agreement, Iranian Shahab 3 (range 1300-1500 km), Scud-B (285-330 km), and Scud-C (300, 500, and 700 km) missiles are to be deployed in a base that is indeed at the doorstep of the “great Satan.”11
Such infrastructures could, in time of need, help Iran act against the United States itself or against Western interests in Latin America in various scenarios: if its nuclear installations are attacked by Israel and/or the United States, or if, should Iran’s sense of isolation and encirclement intensify, it seeks to initiate crises with the United States, perhaps on the model of the Cuban missile crisis. In the interim, Iran is in any case exploiting the relative proximity to the U.S. to illegally penetrate its territory (via Mexico) as well as prepare a terror and sabotage infrastructure on U.S. territory.
Iran seeks to erode U.S. political and, to an extent, economic influence in the Latin American countries, to weaken the countries that support the United States (such as Colombia), and to recruit, by inducements and promises of economic aid (that it does not always provide in practice), support for Iran and its policy. Furthermore, Iran is enlisting Latin American countries to serve the anti-Israeli agenda. In reaction to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Venezuela expelled the Israeli ambassador and created a hostile atmosphere for Jews that led to intensified anti-Semitic manifestations, such as the damaging of the long-established, main synagogue of Caracas, Tiferet Yisrael, and the destruction of sacred books there – an attack that Chavez condemned. Bolivia, too, severed diplomatic relations with Israel over the military campaign. The strengthened Iranian-Venezuelan ties have led over one-quarter of Venezuela’s Jews to emigrate.
Bases of Recruitment and Support
About 4.5-6 million Muslims reside throughout Latin America, the majority Sunni and the minority Shiite. Among this Muslim population two communities are prominent: one that originated in India, Indonesia, and Pakistan, the other consisting of Muslims who originated in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine and who emigrated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Muslim population centers, with an emphasis on the Shiites, form a convenient recruitment base for Iran, both in terms of promoting its revolutionary objectives and in helping terror elements operate on its behalf in the region.
In addition to terror and criminal activity by Iran and Hizbullah among the Muslim base in Latin America, Iran and its emissaries in the region also engage in extensive social, cultural, and religious activity aimed at exporting the Islamic Revolution and, primarily, at disseminating Shiite Islam, even to the point of converting various populations throughout the continent to Shia. The Islamization activity is conducted by the Ahel al-Beit organization, which works to disseminate Shia throughout the world, and by other Shiite centers in Latin America.12 Ahel al-Beit operates a website in Spanish targeted at Latin American audiences.13 Local elements who are recruited are sent for indoctrination in Iran, which includes religious studies and military training, and subsequently return to their countries. They maintain contact with Iranian and Hizbullah elements operating in their country and serving as the operational arm of Iranian policy (in mosques, social frameworks, etc.). Additionally, Iran works to strengthen cooperation in the field of mass communications, and to establish contact with Latin American residents in their languages. For example, Ahmadinejad’s adviser for media affairs, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Venezuelan news agency AVN to bolster cooperation regarding exchanges of news and photographs.14
The Handwriting Is Already on the Wall
The United States is well aware of the sharply escalating Iranian activity in Latin America. In recent years many intelligence, State Department, army, DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), and other operatives have warned about this trend and its negative short, medium, and long-term repercussions for U.S. citizens and U.S. allies in Latin America.
Some of the fresh evidence of Iranian’s involvement there was provided by General Douglas M. Fraser, head of U.S. Southern Command, to the Senate Armed Services Committee on 5 April 2011:
Iran continues expanding regional ties to support its own diplomatic goal of reducing the impact of international sanctions connected with its nuclear program. While much of Iran’s engagement in the region has been with Venezuela and Bolivia, it has nearly doubled the number of embassies in the region in the past decade and hosted three regional heads of state in 2010. Currently, Iranian engagement with Venezuela appears to be based on shared interests: avoiding international isolation; access to military and petroleum technologies; and the reduction of U.S. influence….In addition to extra-regional state actors, members of violent extremist organizations (VEOs) from the Middle East remain active in Latin America and the Caribbean and constitute a potential threat. Hizbullah supporters continue to raise funds within the region to finance their worldwide activities.15
A special updated CRS (Congressional Research Service) report from February 2011,16 “Latin America: Terrorism Issues,” highlights Iran. The United States expresses concern about Venezuela’s lack of cooperation in the struggle against terror and its support for terror groups in Colombia. The report also focuses on Iran’s intensified activity in Latin America, primarily regarding its attempts to circumvent the sanctions (Venezuela having promised to supply Iran with refined oil in case of sanctions), and its ties with Lebanese Hizbullah. There is also emphasis on the growing ties between Iran and Venezuela, both members of OPEC, since Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005. The report states: “A major rationale for this increased focus on Latin America appears to be Iran’s efforts to overcome its international isolation. The personal relationship between Ahmadinejad and Chávez has driven the strengthening of bilateral ties.”
In May, Iran’s deputy minister of industry and minerals noted that Venezuela is Latin America’s largest importer of Iranian industrial products and minerals.17 Also in that month, the Iranian ambassador to Caracas said that “the relations between Iran and Venezuela are based on mutual interests and are affected by the common points of the two countries’ revolutions, including movement towards self-reliance on the domestic level and justice-seeking and confrontation against hegemonic policies on the international scene.”18
In September 2009, Chavez visited Iran and signed a series of contracts and agreements in the energy field. Some contravene the sanctions imposed on Iran and American legislation in this area. The Venezuelan president also expressed support for Iran’s nuclear program, and reports divulged that Iran would assist Venezuela in uranium prospecting.19 This ran counter to UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which prohibits Iranian investments in uranium mining outside of Iran.
Iranian-Venezuelan cooperation continues to progress in many areas. For example, the head of the Khatem al-Anbia command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Rostam Ghasemi, stated in May 2011 that the command was currently dealing with the planning and construction of a tanker with a 120-ton capacity for Venezuela.20 As noted earlier, this arm of the Revolutionary Guards is responsible for the building of the Iranian missile base in Venezuela (which, for its part, denied that this was happening). It also carries out most of Iran’s national strategic projects in the field of infrastructure, such as the reinforcement of sensitive nuclear sites.
The growing apprehension in the United States over expanding Iranian activity in its backyard was already apparent during the presidency of George W. Bush, especially in light of the increasing U.S.-Iranian friction over the protracted nuclear crisis and sanctions. The longer sanctions continue, the more effectively Iran contends with them – both by creating acquisition routes that bypass the sanctions and by building capabilities to respond should it be attacked or feel that the economic and diplomatic noose is tightening around it. Iran wants to prepare its response options against the United States and will not hesitate to use them (as it already has in the Middle East, in the cases of the 1983 and 1984 bombings of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut, and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia).
Priority Intelligence Requirements
One of the major indications of U.S. awareness of the gravity of the threat Iran is building in Latin America is a telegram, revealed by WikiLeaks, that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent at the beginning of 2009 to all U.S. embassies in Latin America. It stated that Iran was trying to forge ties with Latin American countries in an attempt to break out of its growing diplomatic isolation, and that Iran viewed leftist countries as partners in its anti-American doctrine. The telegram also said Ahmadinejad was the main force behind this policy, and that his collaborator, the one who “opens doors” for him in the Latin American countries, was Chavez, noting Iran’s extensive ties with Venezuela that emphasize military cooperation (which formed the context of the Die Welt report). It was this cooperation, the telegram asserted, that posed the most tangible and immediate danger. Clinton also mentioned in this regard Hizbullah’s freedom to raise funds and carry out activities, and the fact that it viewed Venezuela as a safe haven from which it could operate unhindered. The telegram further notes that Iran had established cultural centers in sixteen Latin American countries while having ambassadors posted in ten additional ones.21
Moreover, the telegram conveys a long series of questions (known as PIR, priority intelligence requirements) from the State Department to U.S. embassies and to cross-agency Iran specialists. This attests, perhaps more than anything else, to Washington’s growing concern over the Iranian activity and looming threat in Latin America and its desire to map out their details. It should be noted that the telegram’s extensive attention to these matters demonstrates that the various U.S. intelligence and enforcement agencies have already accumulated a large body of information about the Iranian activities.
The main U.S. concerns are: what is the extent of Iran’s activity in Latin America; to what extent are Iran and its partners in the region acting against the United States and its interests; and who stands behind, shapes, and implements this activity (possibilities include Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Intelligence Ministry, and Revolutionary Guards)? How is the activity coordinated in the field; how does Iran spread its cultural-religious influence in the region? What are the Shiite contexts of this activity in each particular country; what is the size of the Shiite Muslim communities that constitute Hizbullah clans; how do the Iranian diplomatic delegations in the region operate?
The PIR goes on to extensively detail Iranian areas of activity in Latin America that perturb America. Does Iran intend to use Latin America as a platform for terror activities, directly or via surrogates? Does it support terror activities in Latin America itself; are officials within the Iranian regime working to establish networks of cells for future terror activity? Do Iran and Hizbullah share similar objectives in the region, and to what extent is the Jerusalem (Qods) Force of the Revolutionary Guards (the operational arm of the Revolutionary Guards for subversive terror activities outside of Iran) involved? Further questions include: are the Iranian cultural centers and the intelligence and Revolutionary Guards operatives in contact with converts to Islam; how are Latin American recruits who have undergone training in Iran and the Middle East operated; what do converts engage in after returning from religious study and indoctrination in Iran; are Iranian elements attempting to penetrate American territory or private American companies via Latin America; how is Iran working in Latin America to bypass sanctions; is Tehran involved in any way in efforts to counter narcotics trafficking; and what is the extent of Iran’s military contacts with regional countries and particularly Venezuela – including refurbishing F-5 aircraft engines, purchasing unmanned aerial vehicles, and the use of aircraft of the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA for weapons transfers from Tehran and Damascus?
Concern over the Level of Subversive Activity
Already on 27 January 2009, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was disturbed “by the level of subversive activity that Iran is conducting in a number of Latin American countries and especially in its south and center….It is opening many offices and many fronts, via which it is meddling in what goes on in some of these countries.” He added: “the truth is that I’m more concerned over Iranian involvement in this region than over Russia’s involvement.”22
In a February 2010 meeting between Eliot Engel, ranking member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, it was stated that the United States was concerned over Iran’s growing activity in Latin America, and over cumulative evidence that Chavez was providing Iran with logistical and political support to conduct terror activities.23
A status evaluation performed (according to WikiLeaks) by the U.S. embassy in Brazil in July 2008 said, among other things, that Iran was pursuing an aggressive foreign policy in Latin America. It was trying, in the course of frequent visits to the region by Iranian officials, to persuade countries, including Brazil, to join the anti-American bloc of which Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela were already members. Additionally, Iran was conducting “soft diplomacy,” appealing to public opinion in Brazil and pointing to “parallels between Brazil’s peaceful nuclear energy program and [Iran’s] purported wish for a ‘peaceful’ one of [its] own.”24
Venezuela as a Springboard for Revolutionary Guard Activity in Latin America
In Country Reports on Terrorism 2009 (published in August 2010), the U.S. State Department expressed concern over intensified ties between Venezuela under Chavez’s rule and “state sponsor of terrorism Iran,”25 and especially between Iran and other Latin American countries.26 An additional unclassified report of the U.S. Defense Department presented to Congress, entitled “Iran’s Military Power,” said among other things that the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC-QF) maintains an operational infrastructure around the world and recently an appreciable increase was recorded in its Latin American presence as well, especially in Venezuela, and that if Iran were to intensify its activity in these countries it is plausible that contact with the IRGC-QF would be “frequent and consequential.”
The report notes further that the IRGC-QF operates out of embassies, charitable foundations, and religious and cultural institutions to strengthen ties with local populations, with an emphasis on Shiites; and that it operates paramilitary bodies to support terror groups. The IRGC-QF was, indeed, involved in the abovementioned bombings of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut (1983 and 1984), the terror attack on the Jewish Community Center’s AMIA building in Buenos Aires in 1994, the abovementioned terror attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, and in many of the attacks on coalition forces in Iraq.27 The CRS report and others connect Iran, including former President Rafsanjani, and Hizbullah to terror attacks in Argentina.
Dennis Blair, the former head of American intelligence, presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2009 an annual report on threats facing the United States. In this context, Blair referred to the personal ties forming between the Iranian and Venezuelan presidents. He emphasized that Venezuela constitutes a bridge for Tehran in establishing contacts with additional Latin American countries. In his view, the strengthening of ties between Chavez and Iran, together with the rampant corruption in Venezuela, created a convenient environment that Hizbullah was exploiting. Blair added that Venezuela occupied second place after Colombia as a source for exporting cocaine in Latin America, and first place in terms of smuggling drugs by air to global markets.28
In January the chief of USEUCOM (the United States European Command), James Stavridis, in the course of a conference at the Center for Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Washington that focused on Latin American issues, warned about the link between narco-terrorism and terrorism connected with the activity of radical Islamic groups that could have destructive repercussions. Stavridis expressed apprehension about the involvement of “external players” (a broad hint at Iran) that could transform narco-terrorists into those involved in radical Islam right at the United States’ doorstep. He noted while pointing to a picture of Ahmadinejad (alongside those of the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia) “that this gentleman is the president of a state that is financing and supporting terror and he is a very dangerous person and is present and active in this region of the world.”
In a similar vein, Charles Allen, who served as chief of intelligence analysis at the Homeland Security Department, assessed that Hizbullah and al-Qaeda were already involved in raising funds in Latin America, and could establish ties with drug barons and exploit them to carry out terror attacks against the United States. Drug barons already specialize in producing forged documentation, concealing weaponry, smuggling, money laundering, and providing safe havens. He added that while for the moment this was of low plausibility, some of the Latin American regimes offered “fertile ground” for such activity given their corruption and feeble security services.29
An investigation by the Fox News network, quoting former senior officials in the DEA and the Homeland Security Department, found that Hizbullah operatives are involved in setting up networks for drug and weapons smuggling in collaboration with the drug cartels in Mexico. Hizbullah operatives are smuggled via these networks into the United States by tunnels equal in sophistication to those that enable weapons smuggling into Gaza. In this context, Jameel Nasr was arrested after journeying many times to Lebanon where he met with senior Hizbullah figures. As Rep. Connie Mack, chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, remarked: “I think the question that we all have to ask is, when the terrorists come into Latin America, when they move into Mexico, how many have come into the United States? Our government doesn’t know the answer to that question. That should make all of us very fearful.”30
The DEA’s National Drug Threat Assessment 2010 points out that only a small number of aliens (out of hundreds who make the attempt) from countries of particular interest to the United States (such as Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan) who try to cross the border illegally from Mexico to the United States are encountered by law enforcement bodies. The report notes that a number of alien smuggling organizations (ASOs) have a special interest in entering the United States. “However, among the aliens from special-interest countries who have been encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border over at least the past five years, none documented as a known or suspected terrorist has been identified as having been assisted by a DTO (drug trafficking organization).”31
The U.S. State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2009 notes that in the course of a large arrest operation by the DEA, its agents established a direct connection between the traditional drug cartels in Colombia and Middle East money launderers affiliated with Hizbullah. The report also mentions a Hamas-Hizbullah money-laundering collaboration in the tri-border region between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.32 Thus, in actuality, the Iranian presence in Latin America constitutes a transnational threat from Latin America passing through the Middle East and Africa, and primarily in Western Africa where Hizbullah maintains a prominent presence. The problematic Latin American region and its Middle East connections received detailed reference in the March 2010 testimony of Anthony Placido, assistant administrator for intelligence of the DEA, to the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs:
The relatively small quantity of drugs being smuggled out of the tri-border area would not necessarily be a top priority for the DEA when contrasted with the multi-ton shipments transiting the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean corridors. However, with the cost of drugs being far lower in this region, they can be resold in other countries for large profits desired by those seeking funds to further terrorist activity such as Hizbullah….DTOs based in the Tri-border Area have ties to radical Islamic terrorist groups such as Hizbullah. It is important to note that this is not an emerging threat per se, but one that has existed since the late 1980s or early 1990s….There are numerous reports of cocaine proceeds entering the coffers of Islamic Radical Groups (IRG such as Hizbullah and Hamas in Europe and the Middle East).33
In October 2009, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, held a special hearing with Prof. Norman A. Bailey of the Institute of World Politics. He referred extensively to Iranian involvement in the international drug trade while exploiting the concrete factories it was establishing in Venezuela, among other places, in the region of the Orinoco River Delta, and their transfer routes. He summed up:
Iran over the past several years has built up an extensive network of facilities throughout the region, concentrated in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Central America and Panama and involved with the financing of terrorist organizations, drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, money laundering, the provision of chemical precursors to the Colombian drug cartels and diamond smuggling (Venezuela has been expelled from the international agency charged with regulating the diamond trade). It is becoming increasingly clear that one of the principal motivations of all this activity is to be able to retaliate against the United States if it is attacked, particularly through the destruction of the Venezuelan oil facilities and blocking the Panama Canal. In short, the Iranian penetration into the Western Hemisphere indeed is a security threat to the United States and the rest of the Hemisphere.34
Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) sent a letter in mid-2010 to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano requesting that she thoroughly examine reports on collaboration between Hizbullah and the drug cartels along the border with Mexico, and establish a special task force to deal firmly with the serious threat to U.S. security. Myrick cited the views and findings of former intelligence officials and others. One of them was a “high-ranking Mexican Army officer” who, she said, believes Hizbullah could be training Mexican drug cartels to make bombs. “This might lead to Israel-like car bombings of Mexican/USA border personnel or National Guard units.”35 Over the past two years, the issue of Hizbullah and Hamas involvement in using drug cartels to raise money and perpetrate terror activity has arisen in numerous hearings.
Drug smuggling, and the raising as well as laundering of money, serve to finance Iran and Hizbullah activity in Latin America. The huge investments that Iran is making primarily via the Revolutionary Guards, which is expanding its military and civilian activity in Latin America and also developing means of asymmetrical naval warfare, can serve as an infrastructure for drug smuggling from Latin America into the territory of the United States and Europe.
Colombia is investing prodigious resources and activity against drug smuggling by sea, including the use of submarines and mini-submarines36 to interdict smuggling that is conducted via connections between international crime organizations from Africa, Mexico, and Latin America and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Since 2000, over twenty-seven tons of cocaine that were smuggled by submarines have been seized.37 Recently it was revealed that submarines and swift boats have been used for drug smuggling in the region of Delta Amacuro in Venezuela. A submarine capable of transferring up to twelve tons of drugs was seized in Ecuador in July 2010 with the involvement of DEA agents.38 There is ongoing, vigorous interdiction activity by the DEA and by Latin American countries to prevent drug smuggling to the United States and Europe.
The commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, recently referred to an expanded role for submarines, and mini-submarines in particular, in Iran’s asymmetrical naval warfare, and the integration of the Revolutionary Guards in this endeavor. He said the Revolutionary Guards are operating in underwater environments in an asymmetrical fashion and in small dimensions, and in any case they have no intention of manufacturing large submarines because these are vulnerable. Jafari explained that when it comes to augmenting capabilities for contending with enemies in asymmetrical warfare, one should also employ asymmetrical methods in manufacturing equipment.
He further explained that the underwater equipment must be quicker and smaller yet with similar functions to swift boats on the surface, which the enemy fears. Jafari added that currently the Revolutionary Guards not only possess the capability to defend the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz but also to contend with enemies in distant regions. “We are investing a huge effort in building these capabilities so that we can strike the enemy in the same way that the enemy stationed in areas far and beyond the confines of the Persian Gulf can strike Iran by airplanes and missiles.”39Asymmetrical naval-warfare capabilities that the Revolutionary Guards are building could be used to strike a naval vessel in the maritime space between Latin America and the United States as well as to assist drug smuggling into the United States and Europe.
Recently, Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, warned that if the West continues to criticize Iran over the execution of drug criminals, Iran will permit heroin transit through its territory on the way to Europe. Iran also has the capability to do so via Latin America.40 Flooding the West with drugs is not a novel Iranian idea; Lebanon also serves as a conduit for that purpose, and now Iran apparently is acting in this regard from Latin America.
The advantage of the mini-submarines – of the type that Iran uses – is that they can stealthily carry huge amounts of drugs in comparison with swift boats that generally serve this purpose. Aside from drug smuggling, submarines can carry an explosive charge that can damage naval or merchant vessels operating in the Pacific Ocean,41 and could also be used to smuggle weapons into the United States as well. Iran is capable of implementing its threats against the United States in the context of asymmetrical warfare, and could utilize the narco-terrorist infrastructure that it is building in the Latin American countries.
The operational infrastructure that Iran is establishing with the assistance of IRGC-QF and Hizbullah activists in Latin America, under the patronage of Venezuela and other countries, can assist it in damaging American and Western interests in case it is attacked or if it senses that such an attack is imminent. True, there are American bases (the command of the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, for example) alluringly nearby,42 but the fact that Iran can now harm U.S. interests in Latin America and even in U.S. territory is even more attractive, demonstrating to the United States that Iran, too, has a long arm and creating a strategic balance whereby, if the United States acts in Iran’s backyard, Iran can reciprocate.
Iran’s activity in Latin America also provides a springboard for its activity in other global arenas. The common denominator and the tools serving this activity are identical. In its aspiration to regional and global hegemony, Iran seeks to fulfill two major needs: to break out of its international isolation and to erode the sanctions imposed on it. In this context the United States plays an important role both as the leader of the sanctions-and-isolation endeavor and as the country that, in Iran’s view, is usurping its role as leader of the free world.
The tools that Iran is wielding in the battle are identical – terror, the drug trade, military and economic assistance to various actors, and a great deal of anti-American rhetoric. Lebanese Hizbullah serves as Iran’s long arm in theaters of activity throughout the world. This starts with Iraq, where Hizbullah is assisting and training the Shiite militias that have carried out sophisticated terror attacks against coalition forces and the Iraqi state in the making. It continues with the Gulf States (Bahrain, Kuwait, and others), Israel, the Palestinian Authority, West Africa, up to the Brazil-Paraguay-Argentina border triangle. Together with the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards, Hizbullah serves as Iran’s “hit man” for terror attacks, having perpetrated these in Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and the like.
The various U.S. intelligence and enforcement agencies are well aware of this Iranian and Hizbullah activity, although the issue does not receive its proper place in the U.S. public discourse and the price Iran is made to pay is low. Likewise, the deep involvement in terror in other arenas, and particularly the Palestinian one (involving assistance to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad), carries a low price tag. This allows Iran to persist in this endeavor and lay the groundwork for a future opportunity to act, either at its own initiative or as a response to action against it.
Iran is constantly and assiduously moving its pieces on the global chessboard, lying in wait for an opportunity to launch a surprise. Its moves are quite familiar to intelligence personnel and decision-makers in the Western states, and the only question that remains is what will be their next step in confronting the Iranian threat. It should be kept in mind that the infrastructures Iran is creating – some of which are already operative and some in formation – will have a dual implication if Iran manages to obtain nuclear weapons and operate these infrastructures under the cover of its nuclear umbrella.
The Iranian Shah has been checkmated but the Iranian threat is very much alive.
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5. IRNA, 27 February 2007.
6. Iranian television, 20 December 2008.
29. AP, 18 October 2008.
31. http://www.justice.gov/dea/concern/18862/ndic_2010.pdf, p. 17.
36. http://www.elpais.com/articulo/espana/Narcos/Julio/Verne/elpepuesp/20090124elpepunac_6/Tes. The submarines used for drug smuggling are generally semisubmersibles with four-man teams (SPSSs).
37. El Colombiano, 22 March 2009.
38. AFP, 8 July 2010.
42. Recently Jafari said in an interview to FARS News that despite Iran’s ability to extend the range of its missiles, it had no intention of doing so as its regional adversaries, with an emphasis on Israel (“the regime occupying Jerusalem”), were already in range of Iranian missiles and even if the major American forces were sustaining the Israeli threats, they too were close to us and completely within our range (of missiles).