Last year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited his ally President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, where the firebrand leaders unleashed defiant rhetoric at the United States.
There was a quieter aspect to Ahmadinejad's visit in January 2012, according to Western intelligence officials. A senior officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) traveled secretly with the presidential delegation and met with Venezuelan military and security chiefs. His mission: to set up a joint intelligence program between Iranian and Venezuelan spy agencies, according to the Western officials.
At the secret meeting, Venezuelan spymasters agreed to provide systematic help to Iran with intelligence infrastructure such as arms, identification documents, bank accounts and pipelines for moving operatives and equipment between Iran and Latin America, according to Western intelligence officials. Although suffering from cancer, Chavez took interest in the secret talks as part of his energetic embrace of Iran, an intelligence official told ProPublica.
The senior IRGC officer's meeting in Caracas has not been previously reported.
"The aim is to enable the IRGC to be able to distance itself from the criminal activities it is conducting in the region, removing the Iranian fingerprint," said the intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. "Since Chavez's early days in power, Iran and Venezuela have grown consistently closer, with Venezuela serving as a gateway to South America for the Iranians."
A year and a half later, Chavez has died and Ahmadinejad is no longer president. But the alliance they built is part of an Iranian expansion in the Americas that worries U.S., Latin American, Israeli and European security officials.
Experts cite public evidence: intensified Iranian diplomatic, military and commercial activity in the region; the sentencing this year of an Iranian-American terrorist in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington; U.S. investigations alleging that Hezbollah, Iran's staunch ally, finances itself through cocaine trafficking; and a recent Argentine prosecutor's report describing Iran's South American spy web and its links to a 2007 plot to bomb New York's JFK airport.
There is considerable debate inside and outside the U.S. government about the extent and nature of Iran's activities, however. That debate dominated a U.S. congressional hearing this week about a new State Department report that assesses the Iranian threat in Latin America, a region made vulnerable by lawlessness and an increasingly anti-U.S. bloc of nations.
The report resulted from a bipartisan bill, the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, signed into law by President Obama in January. That measure called for a comprehensive U.S. response to Iranian incursions and a study based on threat assessments by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Most of the study is classified. A two-page unclassified section says that "Iran has increased its outreach to the region working to strengthen its political, economic, cultural and military ties."
Nonetheless, the State Department assessment concludes that "Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning" as a result of Western sanctions, U.S. cooperation with allies and "Iran's poor management of its foreign relations."
In a recent interview about the issue, a senior U.S. government official gave a measured assessment comparable to the new report.
"The countries of the region need to watch carefully for Iran as a threat within a spectrum of issues of concern in the region," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "I don't see it as a major threat now. This is worth watching. It is something there is legitimate attention to given Iran's history."