Confronting Iran in Latin America
Today in Washington, political leaders from around the world will gather for the start of President Obama's Nuclear Security Summit. The 800-pound gorilla in the room will be Iran, which plans to thumb its nose at Washington by hosting a counter-summit this coming weekend. The attendees in Tehran will reportedly include officials from Venezuela, one of Iran's closest allies. While the idea of an Iranian-led nuclear conference is risible, we should not dismiss the significance of the Tehran-Caracas relationship, which has highlighted the weakness and incoherence of Obama's Latin America policy.
Iran's meddling in the Western Hemisphere began long before Obama took office. Yet it has accelerated over the past year, during a time when the U.S. has been trying to build international support for anti-Iran sanctions. Some have argued that the Iran-Venezuela alliance is merely an "annoyance," rather than a serious threat to regional security and stability. But Iran has also improved its strategic relations with populist governments in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. All of those countries are led by acolytes of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan strongman. (After Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole his country's national election last summer, Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega sent him a congratulatory note expressing his "love and admiration.")
Chávez, lest we forget, is a major patron of terrorism: His government continues to fund the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has been one of Latin America's most violent and murderous terrorist organizations since the 1960s. Iran, of course, remains the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. "Given Iran's ties to Hezbollah and Venezuela, Venezuela's ties to Iran and the FARC, the FARC's history of building alliances with other armed groups, and the presence of Hezbollah and other armed Islamist groups in Latin America, it would be imprudent to dismiss this alignment as an annoyance," writes Latin America analyst and former Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah.
Thus far, the Obama administration's response to Iranian activity in the Western Hemisphere has been disturbingly timid. Obviously, the administration's top priority vis-à-vis Iran is curbing the Iranian nuclear program through a new round of U.N. sanctions. But Iran's alliance with Venezuela has shielded it from the impact of existing sanctions, and that alliance will weaken the effectiveness of future sanctions. The latest "Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community," which Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair presented to Congress in early February, notes that "Iran has made contingency plans for dealing with future additional international sanctions by identifying potential alternative suppliers of gasoline - including China and Venezuela."
Indeed, Tehran and Caracas have greatly expanded their energy cooperation, and also their financial cooperation. In 2008, Iran launched a new bank in Venezuela, Banco Internacional de Desarrollo (BID), which has since been linked (by the U.S. Treasury Department) to the Iranian military. A year ago, the two countries established the Iran-Venezuela Joint Bank in Tehran. Speaking to the Brookings Institution in 2009, former New York district attorney Robert Morgenthau noted that "a foothold into the Venezuelan banking system is a perfect ‘sanctions-busting' method" for Iran.
In other words, the Iranian nuclear threat is closely connected to the Iranian alliance with Chávez. Venezuelan gasoline and financial assistance have helped - and will continue to help - Tehran withstand the pain of global sanctions. Obama must recognize that. He must also recognize that a perceived lack of U.S. seriousness about Iran will damage Washington's credibility in the hemisphere. Latin American officials are already concerned about Obama's neglect of their countries and his ad-hoc approach to regional affairs. (Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured several Latin countries in early March, University of Miami Professor Susan Kaufman has written that "the absence of any announcement of a new, big U.S. initiative focusing on the region was disappointing to many Latin Americans.") If the U.S. goes wobbly on Iran, these concerns will intensify. Obama risks being seen not only as indifferent toward Latin America, but also as a paper tiger.
Last September, I called the Iran-Venezuela alliance "the greatest threat to hemispheric stability since the Cold War." Since then, that alliance has only grown stronger. If the U.S. is unwilling to confront Iran's growing footprint in the Western Hemisphere, Latin American officials will seek to accommodate Tehran. This will embolden the mullahs, hurt U.S. interests and make the region a much more dangerous place.