Iran's Tango with Latin America

September 3, 2014 Topic: Foreign PolicyTerrorism Region: IranSouth AmericaUnited States Blog Brand: The Buzz

Iran's Tango with Latin America

On November 9, 2006, Argentine Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, pursuant to the request from AMIA special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, issued arrest warrants for Rafsanjani, Fallahijan and Velayati, as well as:

·  Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC);

·  Ahmad Vahidi, a former commander of the elite Al-Quds Force of the IRGC;

·  Hadi Soleimanpour, a former Iranian ambassador to Argentina;

·  Mohsen Rabbani, a former cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires;

·  Ahmad Reza Asghari, a former official at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires; and

·  Imad Moughnieh, a leading operations chief of Hezbollah.

Soon thereafter, INTERPOL issued Red Notices for Hezbollah operative Moughnieh and for Iranian officials Fallahijan, Rezaei, Vahidi, Rabbani and Asgari. This allows for the global circulation of warrants for the arrest and extradition of these individuals. To date, none have been detained and arrested. There has been no accountability. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime has rewarded many of the AMIA terrorists with more senior and influential posts throughout the years.

A great deal more must be done to bring these terrorists to justice, including by the United States and its allies. For example, only Vahidi is listed on the U.S. Treasury Department’s watch list or SDN list. This oversight must be immediately corrected and terrorism-related sanctions imposed on all AMIA perpetrators. International collaboration is also needed to bring these individuals to justice, including, but not limited to, arrest and prosecution. This would send a strong message to Iran, Hezbollah, other global terrorists and their state sponsors, that they will be made to suffer the consequences of their actions.

Target: The United States

Based on his experience investigating Iran’s activities leading up to and following the AMIA attack, Alberto Nisman has stressed that the Iranian regime uses “terrorism as a mechanism of its foreign policy” in support of “its final aim…to export its radicalized vision of Islam and to eliminate the enemies of the regime.”

Iran’s mullahs deemed the United States an enemy long before the 1990s attacks in Argentina. The regime made its intentions abundantly clear at the onset of the Iranian Revolution. In November 1979, it seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held Americans hostage for over a year, subjecting them to psychological and physical torture. This initiated decades of terrorist attacks, directly or through its proxies, that claimed the lives of Americans and other victims. This was more than just a symbolic event. Many, including a former CIA official and former hostage, believe the global war on terrorism began then. The West just did not begin to notice until much later. The same is true of AMIA and the Israeli Embassy attacks.

To Iran, the United States is the “Great Satan” and must be destroyed. The regime will attack our friends, allies, and interests until it can strike in the U.S.

The 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States with a bomb at a busy Washington, D.C. restaurant may be an indication of what is to come. The federal complaint filed by U.S. prosecutors in this matter, as well as statements by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, referred to Iran’s role in conceiving, sponsoring and directing the plot.

One of the men charged, Gholam Shakuri, has a direct link to the Iranian regime. Shakuri was described in Department of Justice documents on the case as an Iran-based member of the “Qods Force, which is a special operations unit of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).” The investigation into this foiled plot revealed that the co-conspirator, Manssor Arbabsiar, met on a number of occasions in Mexico with a DEA confidential source posing as part of a drug cartel. According to the indictment, the Iranian-orchestrated plan was to hire violent narcotraffickers to carry out the assassination using deadly explosives, “without care or concern for the mass casualties that would result.”

This case was one of many developments prompting the passage and enactment into law of the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act. The Act declares U.S. policy as countering Iran’s growing presence and activities in the Hemisphere. It called for the development of a comprehensive strategy to address this problem and for Congress to be kept regularly informed of developments pertaining both to the threat and U.S. approach.

Report to Congress

The Department of State submitted to Congress in July 2013 the report and strategy required by this Act, claiming that Iranian influence in the Hemisphere was waning and suggesting that there was no need to alter the U.S. approach. Members of Congress, U.S. and international experts disputed the conclusions in the report based on mounting evidence to the contrary, including increased bilateral agreements and diplomatic missions; greater presence of agents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), the IRGC and Qods Force.

An in-depth 2012 study on the MOIS, for example, conducted by the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division under an Interagency Agreement with the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office’s Irregular Warfare Support Program, described some of the methods and tactics the Iranian spy service employs to expand its operational reach and capacity. Agents “may operate undercover as diplomats in Iranian embassies or in other occupations in companies such as Iran Air, branches of Iranian banks, or even in private businesses. It is thought that many Iranians who are employed in foreign educational organizations such as universities also may work for MOIS.” The joint Congressional-Pentagon report described how Iran’s intelligence and security agency operates “in all areas where Iran has interests, including…in the Americas” with the United States included in the regional reference.

Yet, the report submitted a few months later by the Department of State, pursuant to the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, did not take this into account or integrate into the assessment incidents directly related to the U.S. homeland or that involved Iran or Hezbollah—such as the plot to assassinate a foreign ambassador on U.S. soil and which had a Mexican connection.

Based on Capitol Hill testimony provided by U.S Government officials, as well as private experts from diverse backgrounds, it is easy to deduce who takes the matter seriously and who does not. However, the goal is not to place blame. The focus must be on putting in place an integrated strategy to address Iran-related and other hemispheric security challenges.

A holistic approach would have considered the role of illegal drug networks in facilitating terrorist financing activities in and through the region. Former DEA Chief of Operations Michael Braun testified before Congress that terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah “understand that the Mexican drug trafficking cartels now dominate” this illicit infrastructure in the United States. These terrorist groups, “most assuredly recognize the strategic value of exploiting that activity…for moving their vision forward in this part of the world.”

Drug trafficking routes are also being used by Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies to smuggle “contraband and people” into the U.S. In 2002, for example, Salim Boughader Mucharrafille, was arrested for smuggling hundreds of individuals into the United States, including Hezbollah and Hamas supporters. A footnote in Chapter 3 of the report by the 9/11 Commission staff confirms these ties, adding: “Boughader-Mucharrafille…relied on corrupt Mexican officials in Beirut, Mexico City and Tijuana to facilitate their travel. Specifically, Boughader obtained Mexican tourist visas from an official at the Mexican embassy in Beirut…” Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiracy to provide material support and resources to Iranian-backed Hezbollah, crossed into the United States via the border with Mexico before proceeding to Michigan to carry out his mission for the terrorist group. According to the indictment, “Kourani’s activities within the U.S. were overseen by his brother…who, at all times relevant… was the Hizballah Chief of Military Security for Southern Lebanon.”

General John Kelly, who heads the U.S. Southern Command responsible for the Caribbean, Central and South America, recently confirmed that Hezbollah is already tapping into the “crime-terror convergence”.

The 2013 State Department report to Congress, however, treated Iran and Hezbollah as distinct or isolated from each other and de-linked their activities in Latin America and the Caribbean from those in the United States.

A year later, the administration has not reviewed its findings, as it promised Congress it would do. There are no indications U.S. intelligence agencies have been tasked with delving further into Iranian activities in the Hemisphere, nor that additional resources have been provided. The lack of cross-regional coordination or integration continues in large part. These deficiencies must be immediately addressed and developments in the Americas must be given a higher priority.

Integration and Prioritization

The Western Hemisphere should be factored into calculations of how to counter Iran globally and in more ways than applying limited, cosmetic sanctions on a handful of Tehran’s enablers. Information gleaned from Iranian regime operations in the Americas and those of its surrogates could not only help protect the U.S. homeland, but could generate information useful to other countries in the region and beyond. The full range of resources should also be made available to U.S. officials tasked with preventing the Americas from becoming a sanctuary, operational center or launching pad for Iran, its surrogates and other terrorists seeking to harm the United States, our interests or allies.