The LatAm Gambit

Iran is charging another chokepoint in the Americas — and the US border. A lot.

The Iranian economy that is in shambles is apparently no obstacle to an Iranian “economic” push into Latin America that has politicians and journalists sitting up and taking notice.  Meanwhile, Hizballah has been making money off the narcotics trade in Latin America for years; but many who are familiar with Hizballah’s recent anti-Semitic activities in Venezuela are not so well-versed in Hizballah’s connection with drug trafficking, from Argentina and Brazil to Panama, Mexico, and the United States.  Hizballah, moreover, has overtly political adherents in a number of Latin American nations, in at least one of which (Brazil) its status has been tacitly considered, for some time, to be that of a political party rather than a terrorist group.

The extent to which Hizballah is already embedded in the Western hemisphere should give us pause.  In conjunction with the recent overtures of Iran to Mexico and Nicaragua, as well as Venezuela and Cuba, it should probably give us more than pause.  Indigestion might be an appropriate reaction.

The combination of these factors gives Iran several operational advantages in the Americas.  One is that the ostensible pursuit of commercial enterprises with partner nations provides a legitimate reason for each of the following:  influxes of Iranian nationals, large-scale financial transactions, frequent cargo deliveries, and construction, warehouses, and other trappings of commercial development.

Enlarging the Iranian footprint in Latin America increases Iran’s opportunities for cultivating local factions – and undertaking joint projects with them, such as (for example) colluding with Hugo Chavez to undermine the Uribe government in Colombia.

The potential opportunity to base conventional military assets in likeminded nations – Venezuela, Cuba, perhaps even Nicaragua – is obvious, as are the benefits of increased commercial ties with Mexico, in particular, for inserting paramilitary operatives into the US, or supporting terrorist plots against us.

Of course, an Iranian presence in Nicaragua is as good as way as any to create a converging threat (with Venezuela) to Colombia, Panama, and the Panama Canal. It should not surprise us that the announced joint project with Nicaragua is development of a commercial corridor, or “dry canal,” from the Atlantic side to the Pacific, an enterprise that would serve as a pretext for any number of dual-purpose activities.

The utility of Hizballah is also clear, in two principal ways.  First, and most obviously, Hizballah’s partnership with the drug cartels gives its operatives intimate knowledge of terrain, personalities, and local conditions – and also obfuscates the likely purposes of its personnel at any given time.  But second, the beauty of Hizballah’s narcotics ties is that they are a source of funding.  It’s a good bet that Hizballah makes Iran’s inroads in Latin America, at the very least, cheaper and more cost-effective than they would be otherwise.  A method of maneuvering against America that pays for itself is a tremendous advantage.

Hizballah has been in Latin American since before the 1992 Israeli embassy bombing in Buenos Aires (which was followed by the even more deadly, and more famous, 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center there).  Over the years many Lebanese have fled to Latin America to escape civil strife in Lebanon, with a large number settling in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela.  Hizballah – which has always maintained itself at least partly through the kind of politicized thuggery familiar to the citizens of Chicago, Detroit, and Boston – realized quickly the opportunity presented by the Latin American narcotics trade, and has been involved in it for some time.  US interest in this nexus increased after 9/11, and Hizballah’s activities with drug trafficking have been a priority concern for US Southern Command, the FBI and the DEA for several years.

The best-established Hizballah presence is in the “Tri-Border” area of the southern continent, where the borders of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet.  This relatively remote and poorly-policed area serves as a base for drug traffickers, and Hizballah is now considered by US analysts to be the major actor there involved in drugs, money laundering, and illegal international finance.  Yet Hizballah also maintains legitimate and overt community ties:  its members own real estate, operate lending institutions, and run a number of legitimate businesses.  Most reporters from El Norte seem to cover this story from Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, where the big local mall is owned by a Lebanese Hizballah member.  Hizballah’s level of embeddedness in this area should not be underestimated:  it is real, and commercially meaningful to the local economy.  (No one who has had experience with the highly successful and well-assimilated community of Lebanese immigrants in the USA will have difficulty recognizing the pattern.)

MSN Encarta map, Author annotation
MSN Encarta map, Author annotation

Hizballah sends money to Lebanon from its activities in South America, which of course is of interest to the stability of Lebanon and the Middle East.  But Hizballah also operates in other parts of Latin America, at varying levels of overtness, and as both a political entity and a drug trafficking organization.  It is important to note, before looking at some of these patterns, that the nations of the Tri-Border area have done less to monitor Hizballah, and suppress its criminal drug-related operations, than the US government would have preferred.  This is partly due to the limited capability of local governments – but it is also due, as the MSNBC and other reports have noted, to a reluctance on the part of Brazil, in particular, to designated Hizballah a terrorist group.

Some level of Hizballah activity has been reported in virtually all the nations of Latin America.  Perhaps best known to Americans is the high profile of Hizballah in Venezuela, which has entailed threats against the Jewish community there, and has been accompanied by exceptionally visible political overtures between Venezuela and Iran.  Hizballah activities involving drug trafficking, and sending money to Lebanon, have also been identified in Ecuador and Colombia, and even the non-Latin Caribbean island of (Dutch) Curacao (with a Venezuelan, Cuban, and Colombian found to be engaged in the latter).  Numerous reports indicate detection of Hizballah using drug trafficking routes through Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama, and reveal Hizballah financial ties reaching into El Salvador, Bolivia, and Chile.

Of particular significance to Americans, of course, are emerging reports that Hizballah is making use of drug trafficking routes between Mexico and the US.  While most of the use to date appears to be for money-making purposes, at least two of those involved have been charged, in cases in the US and Mexico, with smuggling Hizballah supporters into the US.  In the absence of stricter border security enforcement, the main factor in Hizballah’s access to American territory is being able to pay the fees assessed by the Mexican cartels for their smuggling services.  The profits from the narcotics trade appear to ensure that, for the time being, that is not an obstacle.

The most recent reports indicate that members of Iran’s paramilitary Qods force have begun showing up in the Latin American routes and narcotrafficking haunts favored by Hizballah, including Mexico.  (See the Washington Times piece linked above.)  This is not a surprise, given the substantial increase in Iran’s engagement efforts with Central America in the last two years.  The close fraternal ties of Iran with Hugo Chavez and Venezuela are well known to Americans, and on 30 April produced a new milestone with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in Tehran between the militaries of the two nations.  (Alert readers of The Optimistic Conservative will remember that Iran’s 2008 MOU with Eritrea resulted in the deployment of Iranian military assets to Eritrea by the end of the year.  This example does not mean the same rapid developments are inevitable with Venezuela, but they would not be surprising, given the speed with which Iran appears to be moving.  Likely deployments would involve “military advisors” – small formations of ground troops – along with the sale of weapons, and cooperation on military technology.)

Less well-known have been Iran’s overtures to other Latin American nations like Bolivia,  Nicaragua, and Mexico.  Beginning in 2007, an Ahmadinejad charm offensive in Bolivia has resulted in a commitment of almost $1.5 billion in joint oil and gas and cement production projects, and the promise of two Iranian-run health clinics in Bolivia.  Of particular note, Iran’s state news agency also agreed to provide Spanish-language programming to La Paz, a move that is widely seen in Latin America, and of course in the US, as a means of broadcasting Iranian-generated news and editorial themes throughout the region.  In late 2008, Bolivia announced that the nation’s only Middle Eastern embassy would move from Cairo to Tehran – a shift with more than one layer of meaning, given the rivalry between the Arab nations and Persian Iran for Middle Eastern leadership, and Egypt’s historical claims to primacy in Arab and Sunni intellectualism and politics.

(Note:  An excellent general summary of the history of Iran’s inroads in Latin America can be found in this report compiled in English for the Spanish Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid.  Those interested in reviewing the specifics about other nations could not do better than to begin with it.)

In Nicaragua, the election of radical-leftist Sandinista Daniel Ortega to his previous position of national leadership, in November 2006, opened to door to closer ties with Iran.  After establishing a diplomatic mission in Managua in 2007, Iran concluded a deal with the Ortega government to construct new port facilities on the Atlantic promontory of Monkey Point, and a “dry canal” across Nicaragua from the Atlantic to the Pacific, through which road, rail, and pipeline connections would be funneled.  In a follow-up report in March 2009, the indefatigable San Antonio-based journalist Todd Bensman noted that no actual work had begun on the promised project in Nicaragua, and no money had actually been remitted by Iran.  However, Iranians whom local Nicaraguans referred to as Qods operatives had gone in and out of the country, at least 21 of them without visas or official paperwork.  Bensman further noted that Tehran and Managua have inked additional project agreements this year, including a dam and hydroelectric power station.

MSN Encarta map, Author annotation
MSN Encarta map, Author annotation

Venezuela has been identified as a partner in the “dry canal” project, as she was in the oil and gas and cement production enterprises in Bolivia.  We may justly doubt the commercial viability of most (or even all) of these plans, but equally respect the political acumen of the regional approach, by which Iran is leveraging Chavez’s Venezuela to improve her pitch with the other nations, and not letting any opportunity to broaden her Latin American base slip away.  As mentioned earlier, it should not escape us that Iranian agency is infusing, with the emerging outlines of reality, a convergence of radical regimes – Venezuela and Nicaragua – on US-friendly Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica.  Iran signing a military MOU with Venezuela, putting Qods operatives into Nicaragua, and with a ready-made pretext for moving cargo and equipment into the country, combines with Hizballah’s association with FARC in Colombia, and familiarity with drug trafficking routes through Panama, to produce, among other things, an emerging threat to the Canal that cannot be dismissed.

It is also worth noting, if only in passing, that Iran’s inroads into Nicaragua constitute an entry point for the first time on continental territory from which there are no natural barriers to land travel to North America.  Venezuela and Bolivia are on the southern side of the “Darien Gap,” through southern Panama, in the Pan-American Highway system, which runs uninterrupted from its start point on the north side of that gap to its main entry point into the US, where it becomes I-35 in Texas.  (A Western branch of national highway through the US also meets the Alaska-Canada Highway to complete the Pan-Am roadway’s long run from Argentina.)  Hizballah’s cartel connections in Central America and Mexico might well have already made this new advantage less significant than it would otherwise be, at least for the transport of unconventional/asymmetrical threat materials.  There are a lot of ways of getting into the US, and entry by sea is of as much concern as by land.

But no one with responsibility for US border security would consider this an insignificant development.  Iran is acquiring the ability to drive all the way from Nicaragua to the US border in a lower-profile, harder-to-detect operation than ever before:  one that need not “stick out” for any reason, or entail the multiple points of contact with different forms of transport that create operational vulnerabilities, and opportunities for the breach of secrecy.  The drive from Managua to Houston is about 30 hours, undertaken expeditiously.

Central America may indeed not remain the focus of Iran’s current activity in the Western hemisphere.  Especially in light of Hizballah’s documented use of Mexican cartel routes into the US, Iran’s recent overtures to Mexico are of particular concern.  Little has been reported or learned about them so far, but in February, according to another piece by Todd Bensman, Mexican diplomats “fielded an Iranian proposal to expand ties in the ‘political, economic, and cultural’ arenas.”

While such a proposal may seem superficially benign and less than noteworthy, Bensman found both Iranian and Mexican officials unusually reluctant to talk about it – and US officials rather oddly unaware of it.  Bensman correctly points out that Iranian-Mexican relations have languished for decades, the nations have very little trade today (in spite of having the oil industry in common), and Tehran’s diplomatic representation in Mexico City had, of late years, been all but mothballed.  The center-right Calderon government has maintained reasonably good relations with the US, and certainly does not represent the opportunity afforded by leaders like Chavez, Ortega, or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, for Iran to establish ties with an overtly anti-American regime.

But internal turmoil has been on the increase in Mexico for at least a decade; and a recent US military document positing a notional environment in which Mexico suffered a catastrophic political collapse got substantial play in the American media in January 2009.  I am inclined to favor the analysis summarized at this website, which recognizes Mexico’s problems but assesses collapse as far from imminent.  However, the eruption of intermittent chaos on parts of the border with the US, and the difficulties of Mexico’s federal government in dealing with powerful and well-armed cartels and poorly-controlled state enclaves, create conditions in which Iran could reap a high payoff from introducing a growing Qods presence.  Exploiting internal strife, and cultivating local groups with political motivations and grievances, is a long-established method of pursuing regional influence, one perfected by the former Soviet Union, and used by Cuba and other former Soviet clients, as well as China and Iran.

The Amir Taheri WSJ article referenced in my earlier “Charging the Chokepoints” piece summarizes Iran’s use of related methods to establish the ties of radical intellectualism and religious extremism, as well as of commerce and military cooperation, with populations around the “great crossroads” of the Middle East and Mediterranean littoral.  Iran’s aggregate activities in Latin America – see the summaries in the Elcano Royal Institute article linked above – are strongly indicative of a similar approach, from Argentina through Central America.  Interestingly, a writer featured at the Huffington Post in October 2008 presented analysis evocative of this very point (and noting as well Iran’s interest in the uranium deposits of Bolivia and Ecuador).  We should not forget that Iran’s methods can in many cases be centered on promoting religious radicalism, and local groups determined on cultural transformation.   Classical geopolitical analysis based on patterns of diplomacy, commerce, and conventional military activity is insufficient to give us a comprehensive picture of Tehran’s strategy and priorities.

But of course, that form of analysis can help put Iran’s intentions in context for us.  For all her motives, Iran has no better reason to make up to Mexico than Mexico’s unique geographic situation adjacent to the United States.  The opportunities implied by the internal challenges facing the Calderon government may not be the only – or even main – factors influencing Iran’s decision to make the move, in February 2009, toward increasing her footprint in Mexico.  Todd Bensman’s attempts to interview Mexican diplomats about the Iranian overture produced the information, from a Mexican official who requested anonymity, that Mexico was welcoming Iran’s move, and that this was “the new way of the world since the Obama administration has shown open-mindedness about Iran.”

We need not interpret this tendentiously as Obama driving Mexico into Iran’s arms, to nevertheless recognize that the new US administration has, in fact, sent a revised signal about our posture on Iran; and all things being equal, a sense in Mexico that increased ties with Iran would not be frowned on in Washington is exactly what we would expect from that shift.  Beyond some level of ostensible commercial involvement, we should expect to see an increase in the footprint of Iranian-sponsored “community centers” and Islamic education centers – effectively, perhaps, in direct competition with the transnational network of Sunni madrassas sponsored by Saudi Arabia.  Mexico’s ability to handle such an increase in competing internal influences could well be strained to the limit, or beyond.

Particularly, of course, if the Iranian “cultural” and commercial footprint is attended by money, guns, drugs, and the related forms of local “access” – the assets Hizballah brings to the table.  The potential threat from broader Iranian engagement in Mexico is both long-term and short.  Hizballah has already been caught trying to smuggle its sympathizers across the border into the US.  There are no more indicators we need to see, to be certain that a threatening pattern has already been established.  Iran, and Hizballah, are a threat to the United States through Mexico – and are operating from an expanding base to the south, one that continues to be lucrative for Hizballah, and that offers Iran an increasing number of pretexts for moving material, equipment, and personnel – easily including those with military applications – into the region.

An Asia Times article from September related Iran’s activities in Latin America to her utility as a client and partner for Russia.  Referring to Evo Morales’ visit to Tehran that week, author Kaveh Afrasiabi observed that

[f]rom Tehran’s vantage point, an indirect benefit of Morales’ visit is that it impresses on Moscow the services that Tehran can render in strengthening Moscow’s anti-unipolarism credo, which was spelled out by President Dmitry Medvedev in his major foreign policy speech last week. Tapping into Cold War lexicon, Medvedev openly mentioned Russia’s intention to pursue a “sphere of influence” in politics and made a point of mentioning “not only with neighbors”.

Certainly Iran has the motivation to increase her value as a global partner in Russia’s eyes – the best way to motivate Russia to purchase that value at a higher price.  Such an effort may also energize China to compete even harder with Russia (a possibility alluded to by Afrasiabi); and China is well positioned to observe Iran’s movements around Central America, with her own growing commercial interests there in shipping, port services, warehousing, and the oil industry.  (It is timely to point out that both Iran and Russia, through Hizballah and Russian syndicate crime, have intersecting interests and assets in Latin America in another dimension as well.  As alluded to in previous links on Hizballah activity, Hizballah is known to have narcotrafficking ties with the Russian Bout cartel in Central America.)

But Iran is probably putting her scarce resources into an independent push into Latin America at least as much because doing so improves the posture from which she can hope to preserve her own independence of action.  Iran prefers to cultivate and partner with the great Asian powers for her own ends, serving theirs only to the extent she must.  America would do well to keep in perspective that Iran is a self-motivated actor in the Western hemisphere, prepared to collude with Russia, and probably China (as opportune), but not directed by or beholden to either.

Iran under her current leadership is, foremost, an Islamic theocracy, with imperfectly actionable visions of a global caliphate.  She is also a post-Marxist authoritarian/ideological polity that still bears much of the stamp of 19th and 20th century patterns, in governance, of social and political radicalism.  The late-18th-century reemergence of Islamic jihadism shared many characteristics and even sources with the near-contemporary rise of Western social “revolutionism,” and it is no accident that the two strains of radicalism have many features in common.  But Iran’s Persian cultural heritage is much, much older than modern political radicalism, and even substantially older than Islam itself – and it gave the world something Western leaders forget at their peril:  the game of chess.

Iran is not meandering aimlessly about the globe, merely happening to promote radicalism and enlarge her footprints in its key chokepoints, and at the border of the United States.  Iran is engaged on that most essential feature of the game of chess:  the gambit.  The question is what we will do about it.


11 thoughts on “The LatAm Gambit”

  1. Naturally, I’m going to differ with you to some extent on this. You’re right about the Lebanese component in South American society, the highest levels of Argentine politics have been occupied by ethnic Lebanese. And the tri-border area is a hot bed of smuggling and other nefarious activity. However, the hereditary oligarchies of Latin America are perhaps unique on the contemporary planet in their longevity. While these groups are certainly open to the opportunity to fleece any newcomer that might come along, they are have never been willing to give up their positions as masters of their society. And they play hard ball. The Iranians could endure many decades of frustration trying to get the better of the caudillos of South America.

    Mexico has similar issues but in a slightly different way. Although it’s a federal republic, with states, the autonomy of these states, also run by hereditary oligarchies, is much greater than is the case in the US. The Montejos of Yucatan, for instance, have literally owned the state since the European invasion over 400 years ago and do so today. The wishes of Guerrero or Baja California Sur or even the federal government itself, don’t mean much to those guys. Strangers from the other side of the world are ripe fruit for them.

    We should be concerned about any old world country generating mischief in our neck of the woods. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t underestimate the the problems they will have with the entrenched powers in Latin America.

  2. Douglas Farah often has interesting blog posts on the role of Iran in Latin America. For example, a Google search for ‘hezbollah venezuela’ (remove the quotes before googling) currently returns over one hundred items.

  3. chuck martel and A.Reader — my apologies for not getting back before this.

    cm — I don’t disagree with you about the character of Latin American oligarchy, but I think we have to recognize that it has not proven immune in any way to destabilization from disaffected groups, or exploitation by organized thugs.

    Of course, we can’t make sweeping statements about all of Latin America either. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile have had relative stability over the last 70-80 years (in spite of major revolutions and coups); Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, not so much. Venezuela is under Chavez’ thumb now, but has not historically been a roiling revolutionary snakepit — Bolivia has had coup after coup after coup, sort of like clockwork, was still never a big exporter of instability or revolution, and has ended up with Morales today. Mexico, with a storied history of revolution and revolutionary intellectualism, somehow hangs together with a really boring, paternalistic socialism, usually spearheaded by a political pragmatist, and sniped at from within by regional division, official corruption, and the cartels.

    My argument isn’t that Iran will come in and TRANSFORM the social or political environment in Latin America, but that her operatives will be good at finding ways to EXPLOIT it.

    We can’t predict yet how successfully Islam will perform as an agent of social disruption in Latin America, but we already know that Marxism has had considerable success in that role, in some parts of the region. The pattern does exist. I don’t see a good reason to assume Latin America will be immune to Iran’s methods.

    The problem is two-pronged anway: Iran making use today of ties with already-radicalized governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia; and Iran and Hezbollah positioning themselves in ways that could become threatening or disruptive in a polity close to instability: Mexico’s.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Iran would have the means to destabilize Mexico by her own activities there, in the near future. I don’t want to leave the impression that that’s my prediction. But if Mexico does fragment further on her own, an Iran that has established “improved ties” with her will be positioned to take advantage of that.

    A.Reader — thanks, and indeed I’ve read many of Farah’s pieces. He’s a very useful source. I thought one of my links was to a piece of his, but maybe I used another item on the same topic. Anyway, his articles are highly recommended.

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