Is South America where Iran will avenge Soleimani’s assassination?
No serious security or political analyst believes Iran’s half-hearted attack against American assets in Iraq after the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani will be the end of the story. But what can we expect in the coming months? Iran sent President Trump a message about America’s presence in Iraq, but its campaign against the U.S., Israel and the West doesn’t end there.
While the media have focused on Israel, Africa or Europe as vulnerable areas for a proxy attack against American or Western interests, Iran and its Hezbollah proxy have many more soft targets to choose from, having placed assets and cells around the world that can be activated when needed. Americans may have moved on from the death of Soleimani and are focused on Trump’s impeachment, but the Iranians are plotting.
For decades, Iran and Hezbollah have been creating a criminal network in South America that festered and grew while the Obama administration tried to offer friendship and generosity to the Iranians while working toward the 2015 nuclear deal. Politico’s explosive investigative report, “The Secret Backstory of How Obama Let Hezbollah Off the Hook,” exposed this travesty.
U.S. policy began to change two years ago when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions created the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team that convinced South American countries to extradite Iranian-allied drug traffickers while freezing their financial networks.
The tri-border area of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay is a relatively lawless area, which Iran chose for Hezbollah operations. This area should be of interest not only because of drugs and money transfers; in the post-Soleimani era, it may be used to plan or coordinate attacks against America and her allies with the usual Iranian “plausible deniability” of not originating operations from Iranian territory.
Iran’s and Hezbollah’s terrorism in South America came to the attention of the international community with the bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994 and the Israeli embassy in 1992. After years of coverup, the Argentinians finally appointed a prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who was murdered just before releasing his report “specifically warning the authorities of Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Colombia to be vigilant of Iranian infiltration.”
U.S. intelligence and security experts for years have called for more definitive action against Iran in the Western Hemisphere. However, there are some areas that are so remote and under the control of Iran or drug cartels that they are difficult to target.
This month, the Third Regional Conference Against Terrorism took place in Colombia to educate and unite Central and South American countries against Iran, Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian organizations that may be involved in money laundering and terrorism.
Then there is the government of Venezuela, a close ally of Iran. The Trump administration actively supports Juan Guaidó as the legitimate Venezuelan president, but Iranian influence may be too entrenched to make a significant difference even if he comes to power. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that, under anti-American Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, “Hezbollah has active cells” and that, with their actions, “the Iranians are affecting the peoples of Venezuela and throughout South America.”
According to the New York Times, former Venezuelan vice president Tareck El Aissami “helped sneak Hezbollah militants into the country … shielded 140 tons of chemicals believed to be used for cocaine production … (and) recruit(ed) Hezbollah members to help expand spying.” Last year Aissami was placed on the most-wanted list by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for money laundering, corruption and drug trafficking. Today he is the Venezuelan Minister of Industries.
This spy and terrorist network throughout Latin America could be used for Iranian terror theatrics. Even if it is only initiated in South America, it could surface and explode anywhere in the Western or Eastern hemisphere.
Fifteen months ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) championed the passage of the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act Amendments Act, which increased sanctions enforcement and imposed secondary sanctions on those who help Hezbollah. Shockingly, to this day, American ally Germany allows Hezbollah to raise funds, falsely distinguishing their terrorist activities from their political activities.
If we want Brazil, Paraguay and other South American countries to create legislation to go after Hezbollah in their countries, we need to include Europeans for secondary sanctions, who for too long have cozied up to Iran and Hezbollah hoping to make money or not to become the next terrorist target. We need to play offense, rather than sleepy defense, in Latin America against Iran if we want to curtail its terror activities in our hemisphere.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides on the geo-politics of the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.