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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

America Discovers Iran in Its Own Backyard

Filed under: Hizbullah, Iran

The revelation last week by the Obama administration of a plot by Iran to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington opened the eyes of many Americans that the threat of Iran is on the southern doorstep of the United States. What made the plot particularly worrisome from the standpoint of the U.S. security establishment was the fact that an Iranian agent, with direct ties to the Revolutionary Guards, was trying to recruit an assassination squad from one of the major Mexican drug cartels.

It turned out the Iranians were in fact recruiting a U.S. federal agent in Mexico belonging to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); they transferred $100,000 to a U.S. account for a downpayment in order to hire what they thought was the second biggest drug cartel in Mexico, the Los Zetas. The Iranian agent discussed a plan to bomb a Washington restaurant when the Saudi ambassador was dining there. Did the Iranian effort to recruit an assassin from a Mexican drug cartel mean that the Revolutionary Guards had reason to believe that the Mexican drug lords could be relied upon to be dependable partners with Tehran? Perhaps the outreach to the Mexican drug cartels reveals that there were earlier connections with them that Iran was now trying to exploit.

For Israelis, the idea that Iran is active in Latin American is not new. The Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed by Iran in 1992. Two years later, AMIA, the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires, was also bombed. The attacks brought attention to the triple frontier area between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil which had a considerable Lebanese Shiite population and was believed to have been penetrated by Hizbullah.

But since the 1990s, Iran has been systematically working its way up the continent of South America, perhaps with the purpose of establishing an operational infrastructure close to the southern border of the U.S., in a place like Mexico. Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, one of the masterminds of the AMIA attack, is now the Minister of Defense of Iran.

Thus, the Iranians and Hizbullah began expanding their South American network through Venezuela, which they used as a springboard throughout the region. Weekly flights of Iran Air from Tehran to Caracas began in 2007. The Iranians also built a massive embassy in Nicaragua – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented: “You can only imagine what that’s for.” In 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified before Congress, saying, “I’m concerned with the level of, frankly, subversive activity the Iranians are carrying out in a number of places in Latin America.”

Iran expanded the number of its Latin American embassies from 6 in 2005 to 10 by 2010. A new study released in October 2011 by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington claims that the Revolutionary Guards and Hizbullah today have 80 operatives working in 12 countries across Latin America. The study specifically quoted a 2007 Homeland Security Committee staff report that noted: “Members of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist organization, have already entered the United States across our southwest border.”

Michael Braun, the former Chief of Operations of the DEA, already suggested in 2009 that Hizbullah was using the same smuggling routes into the U.S. as the Mexican drug cartels. A Mexican newspaper a year earlier leaked a DEA document claiming that the drug cartels were sending snipers to Iran for training with the Revolutionary Guards. The Mexican smuggling organizations were prepared to move Middle Easterners into the U.S.; thus, already in 2002 a resident of Tijuana moved a group of 200 Lebanese illegally into California, which included Hizbullah supporters.

Mexico has been working closely with the U.S. to thwart the infiltration of hostile Middle Eastern terrorist groups into the United States. But however hard both the U.S. and Mexico work against Iran and Hizbullah, the newest incident points to the need to be ever more vigilant in monitoring the Iranian threat to the U.S.