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An “invisible” Iran in the Western hemisphere: America’s strategic blind spot

Recently, we have seen a hydra of terrorist organizations wreak havoc around the world. ISIS continues to destabilize the Middle East and has ambitions to expand globally. Al Qaeda recently expanded its operations to India and had plans to attack a U.S. aircraft carrier on 9/11. Boko Haram kidnapped 50 more women in Nigeria and continues pursuing an Islamic caliphate in Africa. Only a year ago, Al Shabaab attacked Westgate Mall in Kenya, and Hezbollah attempted several assassinations around the world. Such an uptick in terrorism was reflected in an April report published by the State Department, which found terrorist attacks had increased 40 percent worldwide since 2013.

As the Obama administration stumbles its way toward a strategy to confront ISIS, some have suggested that the US could try to enlist help from Iran to combat this threat. Specifically, Secretary of State John Kerry said on September 19 that “there is a role for nearly every country in the world to play, including Iran.” This would be a monumentally bad decision. Iran is one of the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism and has directly enabled groups like Hezbollah and Al Qaeda to flourish. Additionally, it also continues its march towards nuclear weapons and its attempts to shift the balance of power in Iraq and Syria to its favor. Iran has deeply engaged in Latin America, and its presence and networks have the potential to directly threaten the U.S. homeland.

{mosads}Iran has a record of terrorism in our hemisphere. Iran sponsored car bombings in Buenos Aires, Argentina of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994. Iran has also plotted terrorism on American soil, such as the 2007 attempt to blow up the JFK airport in Queens, NY, and the 2011 attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC.

Talk of coordinating with Iran on ISIS shows just how deaf this administration is from even its own commanders who have sounded alarms about Iran’s presence in our neighborhood.

In February, U.S. Southern Commander Gen. John Kelly testified before Congress that “Lebanese Hezbollah has long considered [Latin America] a potential attack venue against Israeli and other Western targets.” He emphasized that “Iran’s involvement in the Western Hemisphere is a matter for concern.”

However, Gen. Kelly was brutally honest stating, “U.S. Southern Command’s limited intelligence assets may prevent full awareness of the activities of Iranian and terrorist support networks in the region.”

Yet President Obama has done nothing to address this threat, and I am deeply concerned that our nation remains vulnerable.

Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published findings of an investigation to examine Iran’s threat to the U.S. homeland. GAO considered whether the administration followed U.S. law, the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act (P.L. 112-220), which required an assessment of the Iranian threat to the U.S. and develop a strategy to address it.

This bipartisan law was the result of multiple Congressional hearings, classified briefings, and visits to Latin America. In December 2012, President Obama signed the bill into law, and in June 2013, the Administration delivered its report to Congress. The report did not say much: it found that Iran’s influence in the Western hemisphere was “waning” but provided little support to justify its conclusion.

Today, GAO found that the Administration failed to follow the law as mandated by Congress. GAO found four major flaws:

First, the State Department failed to reach out to all of the U.S. posts in the Western hemisphere and did not get input from key foreign partners, such as Mexico. Second, while the State Department found support for its conclusion that Iran’s influence was “waning” from Washington bureaucrats, it did not have the agreement of U.S. military personnel: U.S. Southern Command provided a “notable dissent from the consensus.” Third, the State Department only fully addressed two of the 12 elements required by law and did not address four elements at all. Fourth, the State Department’s bureaucracy prevented its strategic thinking, as its internal policy that its reports to Congress “be limited to five pages” prevented a complete answer to the required elements.

Similarly, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) “did not report on elements for which they had no information.” Instead of identifying its lack of information as intelligence gaps or offering recommendations to Congress on ways to address these gaps, ODNI chose to ignore the question.

GAO also recommended the administration reassess its findings and provide Congress with updated information.

The administration’s flippant attempt to follow the law is stunning to me given Iran’s blatant history in the hemisphere and repeated Congressional attention to this issue. In June 2013, I held yet another hearing to examine Iran’s influence in the region and further urge the administration to take this issue seriously.

The security of the American people and our interests in Latin America require a cohesive strategy and clear situational awareness of Iranian activity. Iran should not have the capability to direct or support terrorist activity in our own hemisphere. We must do more to connect the dots, secure our borders, and protect the U.S. homeland.

I sincerely hope the administration will address the issues raised in today’s GAO report.

Duncan has represented South Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District since 2011. He sits on the Foreign Affairs; the Natural Resources; andthe Homeland Security committees, and is chairman of Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency.

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