The Mullah, the Caudillo, and the Terrorist
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Iranian activity in Latin America is a significant and growing subversive threat. So why is America shunning its allies in the region?
Only minutes from breathtaking Iguaçu Falls and the massive Itaipú Dam, the city of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay is the nucleus of a large, lawless region known as the tri-border area. At this frontier of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, young men ferry motorcycles back and forth several times a day, carrying shoppers looking to score a deal on everything from electronics and gasoline to drugs and illegal weapons. Here, in close proximity to one of South America’s most prominent tourist destinations and the world’s second-largest hydro-electric power plant, an AK-47 can be bought and smuggled securely to one’s hotel room across the border in Brazil for about $400. Explosives go for a bit more, but they also can be procured fairly easily.
Ciudad del Este has a sizeable population of Arab immigrants—approximately 25,000—many of whom arrived from Lebanon after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and the Lebanese Civil War in 1985. It is a poor community and most members are involved in the city’s commercial activity, legal and illegal. This ideal brew of lucrative commerce, lawlessness, and a network of possible recruits has made Ciudad del Este and the tri-border region a breeding ground for Islamist terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Of course where there is Hezbollah and Hamas, the Iranian hand is not far away. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has openly worried about “Iranian meddling” in Central and South America, and Navy Admiral James Stavridis, head of U.S. Southern Command, expressed concern over Iranian support of Hezbollah and other militant operatives in the tri-border region and in Colombia.
The Obama administration has been as reticent in its economic engagement with allies in South America as it has been eager for diplomatic engagement with our enemies.
But Iran’s subversive activity in lawless regions of the Americas is often overshadowed by its more public interactions with Latin American populists such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Evo Morales of Bolivia. For example, in September 2006, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was welcomed with full military honors in Caracas, where he signed 29 economic cooperation agreements. Ahmadinejad embraced Chávez at the airport, saluting “all revolutionaries who oppose world hegemony.” Since then, Iran has funded economic projects and signed cooperation agreements with Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, not forgetting to take advantage of the convenient anti-American photo opportunity.
The wave of leftist, anti-American populism in Latin America, which naturally attracts Iranian attention, is strong, but the United States continues to have solid allies in the region—Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and Mexico, for example. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has been as reticent in its economic engagement with these allies as it has been eager for diplomatic engagement with our enemies. The administration has skirted the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and appears to have restarted trade skirmishes with Mexico, blocking Mexican trucks from using U.S. highways. Protectionism, while tempting in the populist wing of American politics, provides more reason for Latin American countries to look elsewhere for trade and investment. Iran has been that eager alternative. In late February, the Iranian deputy foreign minister announced that a delegation from his country would visit Mexico to pursue cooperation in the tourism and energy industries. And last week, foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki and other Iranian senior officials spent three days in Brazil discussing bilateral ties and economic cooperation with Brazilian officials.
Western observers have been perturbed by Iran’s charm offensive, which is mostly a mix of economic opportunism and effortless propaganda against the United States’ “imperialist yoke.” But it is Iran’s subversive presence in Latin America that merits U.S. attention. The mullah-caudillo alliance by itself is a nuisance and it intends to rattle Americans and their allies. The mullah-caudillo-terrorist alliance, however, poses a tangible security threat to the United States and the region while bypassing diplomatic formalities and snide rhetoric.
Covert Iranian involvement in terrorist activities in the Americas is nothing new. In 1992 and 1994, Hezbollah operatives bombed the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Iranian involvement was widely suspected, and in 2006, Argentine prosecutors formally accused the country of orchestrating the attacks as retaliation for Argentina’s unilateral withdrawal from a nuclear technology transfer agreement. The Buenos Aires bombings were coordinated from the tenuous tri-border region, as was a thwarted plot to attack the U.S. embassies in Uruguay and Ecuador in 2001.
In the tri-border region, Hezbollah and its coconspirators freely engage in smuggling, money laundering, and drug trafficking, using local bandits as well as Muslim migrants in order to plot attacks and generate revenue for the global jihadist network. For example, in a Paraguayan SWAT team raid of a Hezbollah-linked shop in Ciudad del Este in 2001, police confiscated financial statements with $250,000 in monthly transfers to the Middle East, descriptions of 30 recent attacks in Israel, and professional suicide bombing training courses. Hezbollah and Hamas received $50 million from 1997 to 2001 that was earned from the drug trade and other illicit activity by Arab residents in the tri-border area. There is little law enforcement officials in the area can do to regulate traffic and commerce, as they have minimal resources for customs and border management. And because the bureaucratic delay of stopping and searching vehicles crossing the border is economically prohibitive, officials choose to let most vehicles and pedestrians pass the “Friendship Bridge” between Paraguay and Brazil without inspection.
The mullah-caudillo-terrorist alliance poses a tangible security threat to the United States and the region while bypassing diplomatic formalities and snide rhetoric.
While the recent drug violence in Mexico may be unsettling to Americans, it is an inevitable consequence of the Mexican “surge” against murderous cartels after years of corruption and complacency. The relative calm of the tri-border region, meanwhile, is deceptive, and it only masks the threat posed by contraband traders working arm in arm with Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Iranian operatives. The United States can respond to this threat by further pressuring Brazilian and Paraguayan officials to control the border area and by supporting improvements in their technical capacity to regulate the flow of goods and people.
All the while, chummy relations between Iran and its Latin American comrades will continue, and until countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua restore the democratic institutions that have been degraded by their authoritarian populist leaders, America will be a common enemy and Iran an intriguing partner. Latin populists will not have to respond to domestic scrutiny or dissent, and they will be able to pursue short-term propaganda goals and economic interests while disregarding regional security and possibly turning a blind eye to more subversive Iranian activities in their countries.
But by supporting its allies, not succumbing to the populist temptation of protectionism, and helping lawless regions like the tri-border area come under the jurisdiction of states, not bandits and terrorists, the United States can work towards a more secure and prosperous region. The photo-ops and the anti-Yankee rhetoric will continue; it is the subversive threat that cannot.
Apoorva Shah is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.
FURTHER READING: AEI held a conference on January 30, 2009 assessing the implications of the past three decades for future relations with Iran. John R. Bolton recently published “Iran Clenches Its Fist” on direct talks with Iran. Apoorva Shah recently wrote about foreign assistance reform and the Obama administration.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.