Eighteen years ago, on July 18, 1994, Hezbollah carried out an attack against the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires. But Hezbollah was not acting alone. It is now clear that the highest ranks of the Iranian regime masterminded this attack in the Western Hemisphere.
In the years since the attack, the state prosecutor of Argentina has concluded that the AMIA attack was approved in advance by Iran’s Ayatollah, Iran’s then-Foreign Minister, and Iran’s then-Minister of Security and Intelligence. In November 2006, an Argentine judge issued arrest warrants for eight Iranian officials and one Lebanese Hezbollah operative. The following year, INTERPOL unanimously supported the issuance of what they term “red notices” for six of those wanted by Argentina, allowing arrest warrants for these individuals to be circulated worldwide with an eye to their arrest and extradition.
The depth and scope of Iranian activities in the region, and those of its proxies such as Hezbollah, has only increased in the 18 years since.
In the past decade, Iran has almost doubled its diplomatic presence in the Western Hemisphere by opening a series of new embassies in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay. The AMIA attack shed light on the true nature of the Iranian regime’s “diplomatic missions” and revealed the active role its embassy in Buenos Aires played in partnering with Hezbollah. Former U.S. intelligence officials have testified before Congress that Iran also uses its embassies as cover for nefarious activities, including harboring operatives of the Qods Force, an arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In May 2011, Bolivia inaugurated a school for military and police forces of ALBA countries financed by the Iranian regime. The ceremony was attended by Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who is one of the officials wanted by Interpol and Argentinian authorities for his role in the AMIA attacks. Despite his wanted status, the Bolivian regime sent him back to Iran.
Recently, the Iranian regime even launched a state-owned Spanish language television network to promote its propaganda throughout the region.
Iran’s increasing international isolation as a result of its outlaw nuclear program and support for extremist groups is another reason why the regime has aggressively pursued closer diplomatic ties with anti-American despots in the Western Hemisphere. This past January, Iranian leader Ahmadinejad completed his “Tour of Tyrants,” visiting the regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. He recently returned from another trip to the region, stopping to meet again with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
One of the most worrying results of Iran’s success in expanding its footprints is the deepening link between violent extremist groups based in the Middle East and drug traffickers in Latin America. These growing partnerships help bolster the financial clout of both sides. New markets are opened up for the drug traffickers, and the extremists gain access to a new realm for their operations.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Treasury Department recently discovered the involvement of a Lebanese Canadian bank in a money laundering ring orchestrated by Hezbollah to raise funds from the narcotics trade in South America and for their extremist activities.
Despite this concerted effort by the Iranian regime, its proxies, Latin American despots, and narcotraffickers to use the Western Hemisphere as their own nefarious playground, many turn a blind eye to this threat.
In order to counter and raise awareness of the threat, I recently introduced the Western Hemisphere Security Cooperation Act. This bill would provide a comprehensive security strategy for our Hemisphere. It seeks to deter Iran and Hezbollah from establishing financial safe havens in the region, and urges Latin American countries to cease their cooperation with the Iranian regime and other state-sponsors of terror.
Eighteen years since AMIA, Iranian activity and involvement in the Western Hemisphere has swelled. In order to protect our security and regional stability, the U.S. needs to become proactive in dismantling Iran’s transnational criminal networks, and preventing further Iranian intrusion into our Hemisphere.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.