Lawmakers, “Experts” Spin Tales of Iranian Terror in Latin America

(IPS) – Through its ties with Venezuela and other nations in Latin America, Iran is building an anti-U.S. alliance in the Western Hemisphere that poses a direct, imminent threat to the United States, an influential U.S. lawmaker said Thursday.

The remark from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, author of sanctions legislation targeting Iran that was recently passed by a near-unanimous vote, comes amid an increasingly visible campaign by right-wing politicians and allied institutions to build the case for further sanctions and other acts of economic warfare against the Islamic Republic – and, perhaps, set the stage for military action.

The administration of President Barack Obama has implemented stringent sanctions against Iran that have helped cripple its economy and, as the president himself noted in his State of the Union address last month, refused to take the prospect of all-out war off the table.

Its right-wing critics, however, allege the Obama administration has done too little to counter what they portray as an almost apocalyptic threat.

At a hearing Thursday of the House Foreign Affairs Committee focused on Iran’s dealings in Latin America, Norman Bailey of the conservative American Foreign Policy Council even charged that the Islamic Republic, through its allies Hezbollah, had constructed “numerous military camps inside Venezuela, as well as in South Lebanon, with the express purpose of training young Venezuelans to attack American targets.”

He also claimed Iran had “established missile bases in Venezuela”, though adding that those reports were as of yet “unconfirmed”.

In reality, though, there is no factual basis for either claim. Indeed, were there anything to them, one would imagine U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper might have mentioned them during his Jan. 31 testimony before Congress on threats to the U.S.

And, indeed, reports of Iranian missiles in Venezuela were last year explicitly rejected by the Pentagon, with a spokesman saying that not only were said reports unconfirmed, but in fact there was “no evidence” to support the claim and “therefore no reason to believe the assertions… are credible.”

But with Iran, no claim – from allegations of a covert nuclear weapons programme to charges its providing training for the Venezuelan terrorists of tomorrow – appears too far-fetched for hawks in Washington. Latin America is but the latest anti-Tehran talking point, spurred in part by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recent four-country tour of the region, which U.S. policymakers have long considered their rightful sphere of influence.

During his January trip, Ahmadinejad met with heads of state in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador, all countries that enjoy at best rocky relations with Washington. To those seeking further sanctions and potentially a shooting war with Iran, the trip provided for ready-made right-wing propaganda.

Regional experts, however, said the tour was more about Iran attempting to project an image of diplomatic strength amid U.S. and European efforts at isolation than launching attacks against the U.S.

But such experts, with but one lone exception, were not invited to the Feb. 2 hearing called by Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican. She said Iran’s relations with Latin America countries like Cuba and Venezuela posed a growing threat to the U.S. homeland, pointing to the recent testimony from Director of National Intelligence Clapper about Iran’s alleged willingness to “conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions”.

In particular, she charged that Iran and its alleged proxies had established deep ties with drug traffickers and other criminal organisations. “The synergy between Hezbollah and the drug cartels in Latin America makes for a very powerful enemy,” said Ros-Lehtinen, one that poses “a clear and present danger”.

She announced after the hearing that she was introducing another sanctions bill seeking to limit Iran’s ability to carry out electronic financial transactions, presumably with countries such as Venezuela, by far its closest ally in either Central or South America.

Ros-Lehtinen’s at-times stark rhetoric at the hearing was matched by panelist Michael Braun, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) chief of operations under President George W. Bush.

Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force, he testified, “are now heavily involved in the global drug trade. Not only that, they “are pouring into Latin America,” he continued, “thanks in large part to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the undisputed gatekeeper for Middle Eastern terrorist groups seeking to enter Latin America.”

Additionally, the spectacular-if-true plot on behalf of some Iranian officials to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington “qualifies as the perfect example of the looming threat posed by Iran’s proxies operating freely in the Western Hemisphere, and their ability to collaborate with organised crime,” Braun added in prepared testimony.

The alleged plot against the Saudi ambassador is often cited by politicians in Washington as evidence of the Iranian government’s borderline irrational hostility to the U.S. and its allies. Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed to it in his own opening statement at the hearing, as did Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen.

But while intended to demonstrate the fearful extent of Iran and its proxies’ ties to criminal organisations in Latin America and willingness to exploit them, the plot if true would suggest the Islamic Republic’s regional ties are much weaker than alleged, showing it reliant on bumbling used car salesman in Texas to reach out to the very drug cartels with which it is alleged to already enjoy strong relations.

However, in Congress leaders of both major political parties are united in playing up the alleged threat to the U.S. posed by Iran. For his part, Berman, a California Democrat, said at the hearing that “Iran is arguably the foremost threat to United States interests in the world.” Berman said “Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability,” as well as its “support for international terrorism,” requires “extreme vigilance” on the part of the U.S.

Berman’s reference to Iran’s alleged pursuit of a “nuclear weapons capability” came despite the fact Director of National Intelligence Clapper testified earlier in the week that U.S. intelligence agencies “assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons”, not that its leaders have actually decided to pursue a weapons capability.

Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter- American Dialogue, was the lone witness at the hearing to portray Iran’s activities in Latin America as less than threatening – and even rather pathetic.

Though Latin America as a whole is enjoying increased assertiveness and independence from the U.S. in terms of foreign affairs, Shifter said, it has no real desire to enter into a meaningful alliance with a pariah like Iran.

While leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador may share the Islamic Republic’s view of the U.S. empire, and are more than willing to entertain Iran’s offers of aid – even if said aid never materialises, as has more often than not been the case – their relations are largely rhetorical in nature. They are also, notably, countries that are small, poor and of little or waning influence.

And while some on the U.S. right have alleged Iranian operatives are conducting terror training camps in Venezuela and perhaps elsewhere in Latin America, Shifter noted there is “no convincing evidence that such activities are taking place,” which is particularly “noteworthy in light of what are presumably vigorous efforts by US intelligence agencies to gather pertinent intelligence.”

As such, the U.S. should not let Iran’s diplomatic forays in its perceived sphere of influence cause it to lash out and punish the region for talking to a longtime foe.

“Invoking the Monroe Doctrine in this day and age would be very misguided and would alienate our closest Latin American friends,” Shifter testified. “It would ultimately be self-defeating.”