Time for All to Denounce Iran’s Designs on Latin America

As the Obama administration has focused on foreign policy crises elsewhere, Iran has been steadily expanding its presence in Latin America, the United States’ strategic southern flank.  

That offensive, however, hit a snag last week when Argentinean Jewish groups launched a storm of protest over the visit to Bolivia of Iranian Defense Minister General Ahmad Vahidi, who is wanted in Argentina for his role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and wounded more than 300.

The outcry turned into a huge embarrassment for the government of Bolivia’s radical populist president Evo Morales, who was forced to “disinvite” Vahidi in the middle of his trip, sending the Iranian packing back to Tehran in a humiliating retreat.

The diplomatic fiasco exposes how utterly out-of-place the Iranian presence is in the Western Hemisphere. Besides lacking any shared history, culture, or values with the countries of Latin America, Iran possesses no predilection to abide by international standards of behavior. 

Unfortunately, what it does share with a few radical populist governments in Bolivia, Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, and Rafael Correa’s Ecuador is a seething anti-Americanism — and therein lies their commonality of purpose.

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Vahidi had been invited to Bolivia to preside over the opening of an Iran-financed military academy to train military and civilian personnel from countries that make up Chavez's ALBA alliance in opposition to the United States.

In a press conference, Vahidi delivered this reassuring message:  “Powerful Iran is ready to deliver a firm response to any hostile and unwise behavior by the United States.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, perhaps said it best, “Why would any self-respecting government welcome the Iranian defense minister?  Vahidi should be persona non grata, not a welcome guest.  Instead of receiving him with open arms, Bolivia should be denouncing Vahidi’s crimes, detaining him, and ensuring his extradition to face justice in neighboring Argentina.”  

It remains to be seen what impact there will be on Iran-Bolivia relations of Vahidi’s unceremonious departure from the country.  But it is not likely that Iran is about to give up on its political agenda and investments to date in the region.

In Venezuela, Iran has succeeded in building a deep-seeded economic and military relationship running into the tens of billions of dollars that has made Venezuela one of Iran's most important international allies. Chavez has helped to facilitate Iran’s development of a nuclear capability by helping it obtain uranium and blunt sanctions by providing it access to Venezuela's banking system.

At the same time, Chavez has hosted senior leaders of such terrorist groups as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Venezuela to discuss ways of boosting mutual support, including a more robust presence in the Western Hemisphere for these groups.  Moreover, Germany's Die Welt recently reported that Iran is planning to build medium-range missile bases in Venezuela, astride Panama Canal shipping lanes.

In Ecuador, Iran has already attempted to penetrate the country’s banking system (landing Ecuador on the multilateral Financial Action Task Force’s money laundering watchlist) and has concluded mining agreements setting the stage for uranium extraction deals.

In mineral-rich Bolivia, Iran is no doubt also eyeing its considerable deposits of uranium but also its lithium reserves, of which experts point out a byproduct can be used as an alternative or as an enhancer to uranium.

This is not the stuff of ordinary international relations and commerce, but a criminal conspiracy designed to thwart international efforts to hold Iran accountable for its destabilizing and reckless behavior.  The Bolivia incident thus presents an excellent opportunity for responsible governments in the region to lend their voices to the outcry among Jewish groups about the expanding Iranian presence in Latin America and pressure Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador to cease their courtship of this international outlaw.

It is simply incomprehensible how allowing Iran and its proxies to make the region a battleground in its conflict with the United States and the U.N. Security Council serves the region’s interests in any way.

Nor is it an option for the Obama administration to remain passive in the face of Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere — from where it now makes threats against the United States no less!  They need to be more concerned with the tangible security threat Iran presents in our own neighborhood than with offending the sensibilities of those who maintain relations with Iran represent the full flowering of the region’s “sovereignty.”

Iran has already demonstrated the will to shed its declared enemies’ blood in the Americas. One more drop is too much a price to pay.

José R. Cárdenas served in several foreign policy positions during the George W. Bush administration (2004-2009), including on the National Security Council staff. He is a consultant with Vision Americas in Washington, D.C., and edits the website www.interamericansecuritywatch.com and blogs at http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/.

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