Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In Focus: Iran's Offensive in America's Backyard

An Alarming Expansion in the Western Hemisphere




By Clare M. Lopez 

While much attention lately has rightly been focused on Iran's nuclear weapons program, the mullahs have also been busy elsewhere—especially in America's own backyard. During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two-term presidency, Iran has expanded its activity in the Western Hemisphere to an alarming degree.

Tehran has found hospitable terrain among some of Latin America's most anti-American regimes, including in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The jihadist regime's hundreds of commercial, diplomatic and security ventures across the region not only help it break out of isolation, evade U.S. and international sanctions and forge relationships that provide access to needed resources, but also gain a foothold for Iranian intelligence, military and terrorist operations within striking distance of the American homeland.

Since Ahmadinejad took over the Iranian presidency in 2005, his administration has expanded Iran's diplomatic facilities in Latin America from five to 11 and set up 17 "cultural centers." Every one of these provides cover slots for operatives of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Quds Force and intelligence service (MOIS – Ministry of Intelligence and Security).

Their job is to manage relationships with narcotrafficking, organized crime and terrorist organizations. Riding the vector of a bourgeoning Lebanese Shi'ite immigrant population in South America dating to the 1970's, Hizballah has made the region a focus of its attack plotting, fundraising, money laundering, proselytizing, recruitment and terror training activities.

Terrorist Cells and Drug Cartels

Evidence also is mounting that Hizballah cells, with members in the hundreds, increasingly are working in cooperation with Mexican drug cartels, sharing terrorist expertise with them, and moving northward, across the border and up into the U.S. and Canada.

Reza Khalili, a former IRGC officer and CIA spy, says that IRGC units are running operations out of U.S. mosques and Islamic Centers. Toronto authorities have just discovered antisemitic, jihadist passages from Iranian sources in public school textbooks.

To date, though, U.S. leadership, fixated on negotiating Iranian compliance on nuclear issues, has been reluctant to see Iran's Western Hemisphere activities as the critical national security threat that they are.

Ahmadinejad has developed close ties with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, (shown left together) with whom Iran has signed at least 262 bilateral agreements totaling some $30 billion in agriculture, energy, finance and trade. According to Roger Noriega, former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States and a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, however, many of these "development" initiatives serve another purpose for Iran.

Banking and Finance Accords 

Banking and finance accords, such as with the Venezuelan International Development Bank (actually owned by the Iranian Saderat Bank, which is under U.S. and EU sanctions for connections to Iran's nuclear weapons program), serve as cover for money laundering and sanctions evasion.

Joint commercial ventures operate as fronts for military projects: Venezuelan government-owned Compañía Anónima Venezolana de Industrias Militares (CAVIM) is involved in military projects with Iran's Parchin Chemical Industries and Quds Aeronautics Industries. Both of these companies were sanctioned by the UN in 2006 for involvement in Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.

The Venezuelan airline Conviasa operates regular flights from Caracas to Damascus and Tehran—but often carries cargo that U.S. authorities believe includes Iranian military technology bound for Venezuela. Mining projects may provide Venezuelan uranium to the Iranian nuclear weapons program, "bicycle" and "cement" factories actually produce rifles and other ventures support FARC cocaine and heroin trafficking.

Reports from Germany's Die Welt about an Iranian missile base on Venezuela's Paraguana Peninsula are even more alarming. A bilateral strategic cooperation agreement signed by IRGC Air Force commander Amir al-Hadjizadeh in October 2010 during a Tehran visit by Hugo Chavez authorized the project, currently under construction by the IRGC's Khatam al-Anbia division.

Iranian Missile Base 

The missile base reportedly will contain in-ground missile silos for Iranian Shahab-3 (~ 2,000 km. range with the Sejil-2 variant reaching up to 2,400 km.) and other missiles. The Paraguana Peninsula forms the northernmost tip of Venezuelan territory and sits due south of Florida, about 2,400 km. away.

In February 2012, Michael Braun, former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) operations chief, told a congressional hearing that Mexican drug cartel operations in more than 250 U.S. cities offered a ready-made network for Hizballah, which uses their human and drug trafficking channels, money laundering operations and forged document expertise. Ambassador Noriega goes into even more detail, identifying "two parallel yet collaborative terrorist networks … in Latin America": One operated by Hizballah and the other directly by the Quds Force.

According to Noriega, these two networks include more than 80 operatives in at least twelve countries and also feature state-level links back to Iran, Lebanon and Syria. These Iranian-sponsored terror networks establish ties within Muslim communities throughout the region for proselytizing and recruitment activities as well as management of Hizballah's primary financial hub in the Western Hemisphere, located on Venezuela's Margarita Island.

Aside from Iranian missiles aimed at the continental U.S., the next most imminent concern to the U.S. is the deteriorating situation along the southern border with Mexico. Hizballah links with key Mexican drug cartels, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, help the Iranian terror proxy become increasingly financially self-sufficient (as sanctions bite into the Iranian economy) and also facilitate access into the U.S. and Canada.

Tunnels and Bombs

The case of Salim Boughader Mucharrafille, who was sentenced to sixty years in prison in 2008 on charges of organized crime and human smuggling, focused attention on his base of operations in Tijuana, Mexico, just south of San Diego, CA.

A September 2010 internal memo of the Tucson, Arizona, Police Department leaked by an internet hacker group highlighted the possibly inevitable eventuality that Hizballah expertise in explosives—improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and car bombs—will be transferred to Mexican drug trafficking organizations. Sophisticated narco-tunnels found along the U.S.-Mexican border also raise suspicions that Hizballah tunnel construction technology is finding its way to the Western Hemisphere.

U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), left, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Peter King (R-NY), have sought to raise the alarm about the Iranian threat on our doorstep, but not enough yet is being done.

Blockbuster Finding

For instance, despite the December 22, 2011, ruling by NYC Federal District Court Judge George Daniels in the Havlish case that Iran shares responsibility with Al Qa'eda and Hizballah for the 9/11 attacks, not one single official at any level from the New York Police Department to the White House has acknowledged or addressed the implications for U.S. policy of this blockbuster finding.

In fact, in his January, 2012, testimony, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper (shown right) actually stated that Iran's leaders may "have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime" – as though he were not perfectly well aware that Iran and Hizballah already struck the homeland more than a decade earlier.

Such candor failure before the American people and refusal to confront the Iran-Hizballah-Al Qa'eda terror alliance threat to the U.S. homeland belie the urgency of the whole government strategy that's needed to begin degrading and dismantling their network of operations—before an event, such as an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, triggers activation orders from the Supreme Leader to awaiting Hizballah cells.

As Norman Bailey, former National Security Council and senior ODNI official, has suggested, these measures should begin with designating Venezuela a state sponsor of terror, imposing penalties on countries and companies that facilitate Iran's Western Hemisphere activities and ensuring no let-up in the pace of U.S. Treasury Department designations of banks and other entities involved in enabling Iran's terror operations. Additionally, both unilateral and multilateral measures taken with friendly governments will be required to disrupt and dismantle the Iranian offensive in America's backyard.