Iran’s Growing Presence in Latin America
A briefing by Ilan Berman
Ilan Berman, an expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation, is the vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and has consulted the CIA and the Department of Defense. He has authored several books, including Tehran Rising: Iran’s Challenge to the United States (2005) and Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive against Radical Islam (2009). On April 23, 2012, Berman addressed the Middle East Forum via conference call.
Tehran’s October 2011 attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington using a Mexican drug cartel has focused international attention on what had until then been a largely-overlooked political phenomenon: the Islamic Republic’s intrusion into the Western Hemisphere. But how deep is this penetration, and what does it seek to achieve?
In his conference call, Ilan Berman named four strategic objectives behind Tehran’s Latin American endeavor:
Loosening the international noose: Squeezed by economic sanctions and increasingly isolated, Tehran has reached out to sympathetic regimes in an attempt to weaken the U.S.-led international effort to prevent it from building nuclear weapons. Exploiting anti-American sentiments in Latin America, the Islamic Republic has steadily increased the number of embassies in the region and built strong ties with the Venezuelan and Bolivian regimes.
Obtaining vital resources for its nuclear project: Having all but exhausted the uranium stockpiles acquired by the Shah from South Africa in the 1970s, Tehran has turned to Latin America in search of strategic resource partnerships and is now mining at several locations throughout Venezuela and Bolivia, albeit to little effect given its highly limited resource extraction capabilities.
Creating informal networks for influence projection and sanctions evasion: Working through proxies in Latin America’s gray and black markets, Iran has sought out funding for its own protégés such as Hezbollah, which is said to be active at the crossroads of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina – also known as the Triple Frontier. In addition, Tehran has sought to leverage the fluid financial situation in the region as a means of circumventing crippling financial sanctions.
Establishing a terror infrastructure that could target the U.S. homeland: Iran’s growing penetration of Latin America has also been manifested in paramilitary activity. In its 2010 report to Congress, the Department of Defense noted that elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were stationed in the Americas and engrained in “embassies, institutions, and charities to develop relationships and ties with a well-established Shiite diaspora in the region.” This has given Tehran the ability to destabilize unfriendly regimes and to target the U.S. homeland, as evidenced by the abortive 2011 terror attack.
According to Berman, the incident represents seismic shift in Tehran’s strategic calculations: once reluctant to extend its global reach, the Iranian leadership has proved its readiness to attack the U.S. on its own soil. And while Tehran’s Latin American effort remains a work in progress, so long as the administration fails to devise an adequate response to this challenge, the Iranian penetration – and the threats it poses to American interests and the U.S. homeland – will only continue to expand.
— Summary written by Alex Berman.
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