Iran's Gambit in Latin America
In early January, Iran caught the world’s attention by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz and brandish shore-to-sea cruise missiles in what was to be a 10-day naval exercise. That same week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced a five-nation trip through Latin America to advance his country’s influence and operational capabilities on the doorstep of the United States. It would take a very generous view of the Islamic Republic to dismiss these simultaneous events as mere coincidence. Tehran makes no secret of its determination to carry its asymmetrical warfare to the Western Hemisphere. Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi was in Bolivia in May 2011 when he promised a “tough and crushing response” to any U.S. offensive against Iran. Such provocations are part of what should be understood as Iran’s five-year push into the Americas.
The Obama administration and career U.S. diplomats have been slow to recognize the threat posed by this creeping advance. Only after several Republican presidential candidates highlighted the problem in a debate on November 22 sponsored in part by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., did President Obama say, “[W]e take Iranian activities, including in Venezuela, very seriously, and we will continue to monitor them closely.” Unfortunately, merely monitoring Iran’s foray into Latin America is not enough. The United States must find its way toward adopting new forward-leaning policies that will frustrate Tehran’s plans to threaten U.S. security and interests close to home.
In the last five years, Iran has begun to take full advantage of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez’s unprecedented hospitality in the Americas. Chávez’s petro-diplomacy has enabled Ahmadinejad to cultivate partnerships with anti-U.S. regimes in Cuba, Ecuador, and Bolivia as well. Today, a shadowy network of commercial and industrial enterprises in several countries affords Iran a physical presence in proximity to the borders of its greatest foe. It is increasingly clear that Iran intends to use safe havens in these countries to deploy conventional and unconventional weaponry that pose a direct threat to U.S. territory, strategic waterways, and American allies.
Bracing for a potential showdown over its illicit nuclear program and emboldened by Washington’s inattention to its activities in Latin America, Iran is looking, logically, for some strategic advantage by concocting a military threat near U.S. shores. And, as a notorious promoter of international terrorism, it is working that angle. Iran is exploiting its intimate ties with Venezuelan operatives as well as its Quds Force agents’ connections to a decades-old network in the region to proselytize, recruit, and train radicalized youth from Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and beyond.
We now know that we underestimate Tehran’s audacity at our own peril. Last October, American officials discovered an outrageous scheme by Quds Force operatives to use Mexican narco-gangsters to bomb the heart of the U.S. capital. The plot came to light only because U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents set aside conventional wisdom about the limits on Tehran’s deadly designs. The plotters had hoped to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in a bombing that would have killed numerous other innocents. Even for a country that has made terrorism and the violation of international norms vital aspects of its statecraft, this was a brazen escalation in aggressive tactics, if not a planned act of war. That it originated as an operation to be launched with Latin American assistance should have alerted authorities that there is an increased menace in our own hemisphere.
Nevertheless, policymakers in the Obama administration have remained remarkably complacent. And the danger of Latin American involvement is multidimensional, reaching beyond the assistance of Mexican foot soldiers. Even as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) affirmed in a recent report that foreign support is crucial to Iran’s capability of developing a nuclear weapon,U.S. diplomatic, intelligence, and security agencies are uncertain whether Iran is extracting ore from vast uranium basins in Venezuela or Ecuador or whether Argentina has resumed sharing nuclear technology with Tehran.
It is clear that some U.S. policymakers and putative experts on Iran and international terrorism have been slow to adjust their thinking on Tehran’s plotting in the Americas. Such figures, for example, often cite a 2010 report prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) when they are looking to refute claims of Iran’s capabilities and intentions in Latin America. For example, when Mitt Romney referred during a Republican presidential debate to the Hezbollah network in Latin America, politifact.com argued that the CRS report only mentioned terrorist fundraising as a problem there. Remarkably, the only mention of Venezuela in that 56-page primer is a footnote referring to Venezuela’s high-level military complicity with Colombian narco-terrorists. Policymakers, moreover, remain oblivious to the growing threat because the State Department has failed to demand that the intelligence community scrutinize the activities of Iran and Hezbollah in the Western hemisphere.
An important exception to such neglect is the work of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Department of the Treasury, which have sanctioned numerous Venezuelan officials and entities for their complicity with and support for Iran and international terrorism. Again, according to sources in these agencies, State Department officers systematically resist the application of sanctions against Venezuelan officials and entities, even though those persons are playing an increasingly large role in Iran’s operational capabilities near U.S. territory.
In order to facilitate its push into the Western Hemisphere, Iran increased the number of its embassies in the region from 6 in 2005 to 10 in 2010. The real game-changer, however, has been the alliance developed between Ahmadinejad and Chávez.
Hugo Chávez’s track record of anti-Americanism and support for terrorist groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is well established. In recent years, moreover, Venezuela’s Margarita Island has become the principal safe haven and center of Hezbollah operations in the Americas. As a terrorist extension of the regime in Tehran, Hezbollah exists primarily to do Iran’s dirty work abroad.
Research from open sources, subject-matter experts, and sensitive sources within various governments have identified at least two parallel, collaborative terrorist networks growing at an alarming rate in Latin America. One is operated by Venezuelan collaborators, and the other is managed by the Quds Force. These networks encompass more than 80 operatives in at least 12 countries throughout the region, with the greatest areas of focus being Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile.
Ghazi Nassereddine, a native of Lebanon who became a Venezuelan citizen about 11 years ago and is now Venezuela’s second-ranking diplomat in Syria, is the most prominent Hezbollah supporter in Venezuela, because of his close relationship to Chávez’s Justice and Interior Minister, Tarek el-Aissami. Along with at least two of his brothers, Nassereddine manages a network to expand Hezbollah’s influence in Venezuela and beyond.
Nassereddine’s brother Abdallah, a former member of the Venezuelan congress, uses his position as the former vice president of the Federation of Arab and American Entities in Latin America and the president of its local chapter in Venezuela to maintain ties with Islamic communities throughout the region. He currently resides on Margarita Island, where he runs various money-laundering operations and manages much of the business dealings of Hezbollah in Latin America, according to documentary evidence obtained from Venezuelan sources.
Younger brother Oday is responsible for establishing paramilitary training centers on Margarita Island. He is allegedly recruiting Venezuelans through local círculos bolivarianos (neighborhood watch committees composed of the most radical Chávez followers) and sending them to Iran for further training.
Hojjat al-Eslam Mohsen Rabbani, who was the cultural attaché at the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Buenos Aires, oversees a parallel Hezbollah recruitment network from inside Iran. Rabbani is currently the international-affairs adviser to the Al-Mostafa Al-Alam Cultural Institute in Qom, which is tasked with the propagation of Shia Islam. Rabbani, referred to by the influential Brazilian magazine Veja as “the Terrorist Professor,” is a die-hard defender of the Iranian revolution and the mastermind behind the two notorious terrorist attacks against Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 which killed 144 people. At the request of Argentina, Interpol issued international extradition warrants for Rabbani and others in March 2007.
At the time, Rabbani was credentialed as a cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy in the Argentine capital, which he used as a staging ground for extremist propaganda, recruitment, and training that culminated in those two attacks. In fact, he continues to exploit that network of Argentine converts to expand the reach of Iran and Hezbollah by leveraging them in identifying and recruiting operatives throughout the region for radicalization and terrorist training in Venezuela and Iran (specifically, the city of Qom).
At least two mosques in Buenos Aires—Al Imam and At-Tauhid—are run by Rabbani disciples. Sheik Abdallah Madani runs the Al Imam mosque, which also serves as the headquarters of the Islamic-Argentine Association, one of the most prominent Islamic cultural centers in Latin America.
Some of Rabbani’s disciples have taken what they have learned from their mentor in Argentina and replicated it elsewhere in the region. Sheik Karim Abdul Paz, an Argentine convert to Shiite Islam, studied under Rabbani in Qom for five years and succeeded him at the At-Tauhid mosque in Buenos Aires in 1993. Abdul Paz is now the imam of a cultural center in Santiago, Chile.
Another Argentine convert to radical Islam and Rabbani disciple now in Chile is Sheik Suhail Assad, currently a professor at the University of Santiago. He lectures at universities throughout the region and appears frequently on television. Most recently, he was in El Salvador establishing relationships within the Muslim community.
But the real prize for the Rabbani network—and Hezbollah in general—is Brazil, the economic powerhouse of the Americas and home to some one million Muslims. One of Rabbani’s brothers lives there: Mohammad Baquer Rabbani Razavi, the founding father of the Iranian Association in Brazil, whom he visits and coordinates with systematically. Another principal collaborator is Sheik Khaled Taki Eldyn, a Sunni radical from the Sao Paulo Guarulhos mosque. Taki Eldyn, who is active in ecumenical activities with the Shia mosques, also serves as the secretary general of the Council of the Leaders of the Societies and Islamic Affairs of Brazil. A sensitive source linked that mosque to a network designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as providing major financial and logistical support to Hezbollah. As far back as 1995, Taki Eldyn hosted al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. According to sources in Brazilian intelligence cited by Veja, at least 20 operatives from Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Jihad are using Brazil as a hub for terrorist activity.
American and other government authorities have identified and sanctioned some of the leaders of these networks, and U.S. law-enforcement agencies—led by the Drug Enforcement Administration—have made great efforts to assess and confront this threat by building cases against foreign officials and sanctioning commercial entities that support this criminal terror organization. This dangerous network, however, requires a whole-government strategy, beginning with an interagency review to assess the transnational, multifaceted nature of the problem, educate friendly governments, and implement measures unilaterally and with willing partners to disrupt and dismantle their operations.
Ahmadinejad’s visit in January to Venezuela and elsewhere in the region was clearly intended to shore up Iran’s interests in Latin America as Chávez succumbs to cancer. Iran can be expected to make common cause with Cuba, Russia, and China to protect its safe haven—if necessary, by encouraging Chávez’s leftist movement to scuttle the October 2012 elections in Venezuela. If the United States were more vigilant at this critical post-Chávez transition phase, it might be possible to spoil Iran’s plans by supporting a peaceful, electoral solution.
Having fallen dangerously behind in its effort to stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, Washington can scarcely afford to cede ground to the Islamic Republic in what is, in global terms, the United States’ own backyard. Iran, emboldened by its success in eluding significant Western sanctions and keeping American military force at bay, is becoming more provocative. If Washington does not transition from monitoring to acting against Iranian advances in Latin America, it may find itself confronting a grave and growing threat that it can neither diminish nor evade.