"We always have a concern about in particular the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and [their] efforts . . . to expand their influence not only throughout the Middle East but into [South America] as well," Panetta told reporters Monday.
"That, in my book, that relates to expanding terrorism. And that's one of the areas that I think all of us are concerned about," he added.
Panetta's comments came as he was en route to Colombia as part of a scheduled round of visits to various South American countries this week.
Iran’s recent diplomatic push into South America could help Hamas and Hezbollah expand their foothold in the region.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has visited the region six times over the past six years.
Tehran has also expanded its network of embassies and cultural centers in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua during that time.
Iran’s increased engagement with its South American allies is one way Tehran can get around the raft of economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.
Hamas and Hezbollah have also leveraged its connections to narcotraffickers and other transnational crime syndicates in the region to raise money for future terror operations, Southern Command chief Gen. Douglas Fraser told Congress in March.
“We do see evidence of international terrorist groups benefitting from ... illicit trafficking and money laundering” in South America, he said in written testimony during a March 13 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Specifically, both Iranian-backed terror groups look regularly to South America to finance their operations in the Middle East, Frasier said at the time.
Those activities are conducted through both “licit avenues such as charitable donations, and illicit means, including trafficking in drugs, counterfeit and pirated goods,” the four-star general told members of the Senate panel.