Underestimating Iran's Global Reach
US President Barack Obama underestimates the threat Iran poses to global security. Were this not the case, he would not have sent CIA Director Leon Panetta to Israel ahead of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to the White House.
Panetta was reportedly dispatched here to read the government the riot act. Israel, he reportedly told his interlocutors, must not attack Iran without first receiving permission from Washington. Moreover, Israel should keep its mouth shut about attacking Iran. As far as Washington is concerned, Iran's latest threats to destroy Israel were nothing more than payback for statements by Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials regarding Israel's refusal to countenance a nuclear armed Iran.
Over the past several weeks, we have learned that the administration has made its peace with Iran's nuclear aspirations. Senior administration officials acknowledge as much in off-record briefings. It is true, they say, that Iran may exploit its future talks with the US to run down the clock before they test a nuclear weapon. But, they add, if that happens, the US will simply have to live with a nuclear-armed mullocracy.
The administration's nonchalance about the threat of a nuclear armed Iran explains why the White House is so up in arms about the prospect of Israel acting independently to prevent Iran from building a nuclear arsenal. As far as the administration is concerned, the only reason Iran would threaten US interests is if Israel provokes it. As far as the administration is concerned, if Israel could just leave Iran's nuclear installations alone, Iran would behave itself. But if Israel preemptively takes out Iran's nuclear capabilities, and Iran in turn attacks Israeli and US targets in the region, the Obama administration will hold Israel - not Iran - responsible for whatever losses the US incurs. That was apparently the message Panetta wanted to transmit to Jerusalem during his recent visit.
WHILE LARGELY supported by the US media, the administration's view of the Iranian threat is not without its domestic critics. Opponents of the administration's policy of engagement and appeasement have pointed out that a nuclear armed Iran will surely destabilize the Middle East and as a consequence, will harm US national security interests. And this is true enough. Whether by spurring a regional nuclear arms race; destabilizing with the intent of overthrowing Western-aligned regimes in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco; enabling its terror proxies in Hizbullah and Hamas to operate under its nuclear umbrella; or attacking Israel with nuclear weapons, it is clear that the emergence of Iran as a nuclear power will cause tragedy, grief, chronic war and instability throughout the region. And - as the administration's critics make clear - such a state of affairs would be antithetical to US national interests.
While correct, these warnings miss the mark. Yes, it is true that a nuclear-armed Iran would destabilize the Middle East. But the Obama White House doesn't seem to care about that. What interests the White House apparently, is minimizing Teheran's animosity towards Washington. If it can convince the mullocracy that Washington is not a threat, then - the thinking goes - perhaps, the buck will stop at the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf.
This bit of wishful thinking is wrong both theoretically and practically. It fails to take into account Iran's stated intentions and the consequences of its likely behavior for the Middle East, and it ignores the fact that Iran's intentions and actions for the past two decades have not been limited to the Middle East.
For upwards of 20 years, and at a break-neck pace since 1999, Iran has built up a long strategic arm in America's backyard from which it is fully capable of attacking the US directly with the able and enthusiastic assistance of a network of proxies and allies.
IRAN POSES a direct threat to US national security through its alliances and military, intelligence and terrorist presence in South and Central America. Today Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iran's Hizbullah terror cells, and other Iranian agencies operate in open collaboration with anti-US governments throughout the Western Hemisphere. The South American lynchpin of this new and growing Iranian-centered alliance system is Hugo Chavez's regime in Venezuela.
Through Chavez's good offices, Iran has developed a strategic presence in Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia and warm ties with Cuba. It is exerting growing influence in El Salvador, Brazil, Argentina, Peru and among FARC terrorists in Colombia. And it has highly developed and already proven human smuggling routes to the US in Mexico. It is through this alliance structure with anti-American regimes in Latin America and with sub-national Islamic and narco-terrorist networks in failing states that Iran already constitutes a grave threat to US national security. And it is through this rapidly expanding alliance system that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an acute danger to US national security.
So far, the Obama administration has dealt with the threat posed by Iran's strategic alliance with Venezuela and Chavez's string of allied regimes in the same fashion as it has contended with Iran itself: It has blamed the situation on the Bush administration. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it last week, the Bush administration's policy of "isolating leaders who have led the opposition to US policies in Central and Latin America has failed and marginalized Washington's interests."
CLINTON'S STATEMENT makes clear the basic and disturbing consistency of the administration's failure to understand that there are regimes that are inherently hostile to the US and will remain irreconcilably hostile to the US regardless of what it does or who sits in the White House. Just as the administration cannot get its arms around the fact that the Iranian regime can only justify its existence by maintaining its hostility towards America, so it cannot countenance the fact that Chavez is only able to justify his existence through his hatred for Uncle Sam. It has no way of explaining for instance the fact that Iran and Venezuela responded to Obama's attempts last month to extend an open hand to both countries by signing a memorandum upgrading their military alliance.
Were the administration able to understand the basic fact that some countries simply cannot abide by America, it would realize that the Iranian-Venezuelan military alliance itself is cause for a systematic reassessment of the rationale behind the US's Western Hemispheric strategy. As Italy's La Stampa reported last December, every week a Venezuelan airliner takes off from Teheran. It travels on to Syria's Damascus airport before continuing on to Caracas. These flights have no commercial value, and the passenger manifest is kept secret. But as La Stampa reported and as both US officials and Venezuelan dissidents have testified, these flights are used to transfer prohibited military equipment, including missile parts from Teheran to Syria. Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese-Hizbullah and Palestinian terror personnel then board the plane to its final destination in Caracas. Iranian Revolutionary Guards are sent to Venezuela to among other things train Venezuela's security services in methods for repressing internal dissent.
Venezuela's military alliance with Iran places Iranian military personnel and Hizbullah operatives at every level of Venezuela's military, intelligence and law enforcement establishment. For example, as the Washington-based Center for Security Policy's Western Hemispheric Security Project documented in a recent report, Hizbullah agents control Venezuela's passport agency.
In 2003, Chavez appointed Tarek el-Aissami, a known Hizbullah member to head the country's passport agency. Last year Aissami was promoted to serve as Minister of Interior and Justice. Then too, last June, the US Department of Treasury designated Ghazi Nasr al Din, a Venezuelan diplomat who served as the deputy ambassador in Damascus and Beirut as a Hizbullah agent.
Hizbullah has a large and active presence in Venezuela. It operates openly throughout the country through both Lebanese cells and through native Venezuelan operatives who have converted to Islam. In 2006, a Hizbullah cell comprised of local converts staged an attempted bombing against the US embassy in Caracas.
Hizbullah has developed a formidable economic presence in Latin America. Although it has run a web of businesses in the region for decades, since 2005 the economic importance of these businesses has been eclipsed by the terror group's involvement in worldwide cocaine distribution facilitated through its close ties with Chavez and FARC. According to the US military's Southern Command, Hizbullah in Latin America earns between $300-500 million per year. This dwarfs the $200 million a year it receives from Iran.
Through Mexico, Hizbullah members and other terror operatives are able to enter the US relatively easily. In 2002 for instance the US arrested a Hizbullah operative in Mexico who admitted that he had facilitated the infiltration of several hundred Hizbullah operatives into the US.
THEN THERE is Nicaragua under the leadership of Chavez's buddy Sandinista chief Daniel Ortega. Since he assumed Nicaragua's presidency in 2007, Ortega has facilitated a massive expansion of Iran's presence in Central America. With more than a hundred accredited diplomats, Iran's embassy in Managua - a massive compound surrounded by four-meter-high concrete walls lined with razor wire - is one of the largest diplomatic compounds in the world.
Even more disturbing than Iran's enormous diplomatic presence in Nicaragua are its massive maritime activities and plans. In 2007 Iran and Venezuela announced that they were investing $350 million to build a deep water port at Nicaragua's Monkey Point along the Caribbean Sea. Iran also announced its plans to upgrade Nicaragua's Pacific Port of Corinto. Finally, Teheran announced it would build a dry canal connecting the two ports. Such a building scheme would enable Iran to evade the Panama Canal; to build its own military infrastructure within the ports themselves; and to freely camouflage missile ships as civilian maritime traffic and use them to launch short and medium-range missiles against the US. Moreover, with its massive army of Hizbullah operatives on standby, Iran could launch attacks through its proxies - as it did in its 1992 and 1994 attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires - and so deny it had anything to do with the attacks.
None of this should suggest that anyone expects the US to attack Iran's nuclear installations. The administration's policies clearly rule out any such contingency. As for Israel, regardless of what the US does, it should be clear that Jerusalem will not stand by idly and allow existential threats to emerge and grow.
What people - and particularly Americans - could have expected is that the administration would take seriously the threat that Iran poses to the US in the Western Hemisphere. Depressingly however, the administration's apparent decision to abdicate America's position and responsibilities as the sole global superpower has led it to also abdicate its position and responsibilities as the most powerful nation in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, what the administration's refusal to acknowledge the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran - rich with proxies and allies at America's doorstep - poses to America demonstrates is that in its haste to blame its predecessor for the fact that the US has real enemies, the administration is abdicating its responsibility to defend America itself.