The revelation last week by the Obama administration of a plot by Iran to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington opened the eyes of many Americans that the threat of Iran is on the southern doorstep of the U.S. What made the plot particularly worrisome from the standpoint of the U.S. security establishment was the fact that an Iranian agent, with direct ties to the Revolutionary Guards, was trying to recruit an assassination squad from one of the Mexican drug cartels.
It turned out the Iranians were in fact recruiting a U.S federal agent in Mexico belonging to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); they transferred $100,000 to a U.S. account as a down payment in order to hire what they thought was the second biggest drug cartel in Mexico, the Los Zetas. The Iranian agent discussed a plan to bomb a Washington restaurant when the Saudi ambassador was dining there. There was talk that this would produce mass causalities, like any bomb attack. Did the Iranian effort to recruit an assassin from a major Mexican drug cartel mean that the Revolutionary Guards had reason to believe that the Mexican drug lords could be relied upon to be partners with Tehran? How extensive was the Iranian penetration of Mexico’s underworld prior to the hatching of this plot?
The discovery that the Iranians were operating in Latin America, and were planning terrorist attacks in the U.S. itself was prominently featured in all the major American media. President Obama said on Oct. 13 that Iran was going to pay a price for what it had done. He added that the U.S. was not going to take any options off the table in terms of how it operates with Iran. Senior members of Congress – both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats – reacted strongly as well. After being briefed by the FBI and the CIA, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein appeared to take the Iranian plot very seriously and she even suggested that the U.S. needed to investigate whether there were other Iranian plots in other countries.
For Israelis the idea that Iran is active in Latin American is not new. The Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed by Iran in 1992. Two years later AMIA, the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires was also bombed. The attacks brought attention to the triple frontier area between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil which had a considerable Lebanese Shiite population and was believed to have been penetrated by Hezbollah.
But since the 1990s, Iran has been systematically working its way up the continent of South America, perhaps with the purpose of establishing an operational infrastructure close to the southern border of the U.S. Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, one of the masterminds of the AMIA attack is now the defense minister of Iran.
Thus, the Iranians and Hezbollah began expanding their South American network through Venezuela, which they used as a springboard throughout the region. Weekly flights of Iran Air from Tehran to Caracas began in 2007. The Iranians also built a massive embassy in Nicaragua, on which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented: “You can only imagine what that’s for.” In 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified to Congress, saying, “I’m concerned with the level of, frankly, subversive activity the Iranians are carrying out in a number of places in Latin America.”
Iran expanded the number of its Latin American embassies from six in 2005 to 10 by 2010. A new study released this month by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington claims that the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah today have 80 operatives working in 12 countries across Latin America.
Michael Braun, the former chief of operations of the DEA, suggested in 2009 that Hezbollah was using the same smuggling routes into the U.S. as the Mexican drug cartels. A Mexican newspaper a year earlier leaked a DEA document that claiming the drug cartels were sending snipers to Iran for training with the Revolutionary Guards. The Mexican smuggling organizations were prepared to move Middle Easterners into the U.S.; thus already in 2002 a resident of Tijuana moved a group of 200 Lebanese illegally into California, which included Hezbollah supporters.
This background of Iranian infiltration into South America was known by many professionals, but it was rarely presented to the general public. For the last ten years, the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico into the southern U.S. has been at the center of American political debate. The Iranian plot in Mexico has now added a clear national-security dimension to this question. Because of the vulnerability of the U.S. along its southern border, the latest revelations also touched a raw nerve in the American political system, which explains why President Obama and Congress appear to be so determined to ratchet up their response to Iran at this time.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom