In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: U.S. may reassess Iran-Latin American ties

The U.S. State Department said this week it will reevaluate a recent report in which it downplayed Iran’s links to terrorism in Latin America. But don’t expect an immediate change in U.S. policy.

Judging from what I’m told by senior U.S. officials, the Obama administration will continue trying not to over-dramatize this issue, even if there is mounting pressure from Congress to take a more aggressive stand on Iran’s activities in Latin America.

In a letter to Sen. Mark Kirk, R-IL., dated Aug. 1, the State Department said that it has asked the U.S. intelligence community to take a new look into Iran’s activities in the region in light of a 500-page report by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, the lead investigator into the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires. That attack left 85 people dead and about 300 wounded.

“We told Sen. Kirk that Mr. Nisman’s report was published too late to be taken into account for our assessment, but that we would review it with our colleagues in the intelligence community,” the State Department’s head of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, told me on Wednesday. “We have now done so — which doesn’t mean our assessment will change.”

Jacobson added that “we constantly and aggressively monitor all sources of information.”

In his 500-page report, issued in May, Nisman said the Iranian regime is infiltrating several Latin American countries and building local clandestine intelligence stations not only in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, but also in countries such as Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname.

These Iranian intelligence stations are “designed to sponsor, foster and execute terrorist attacks,” and to export the Islamic revolution, according to Nisman’s findings. Diplomatic sources add that Iran is expanding its Islamic Revolution propaganda throughout the region and even in Puerto Rico, where a television station airs Iran’s HispanTV propaganda network.

In 2006, Nisman requested that Interpol arrest eight top Iranian officials linked to the 1994 terrorist bombing in Argentina. New Iranian President Hasan Rouhani was not among them, although a witness in the investigation said the current president was the secretary of the powerful Supreme National Security Council at the time of the bombing. In a recent interview, Nisman told me that “at this point, there is nothing in the investigation that would allow us to link him to the bombing.”

Two months ago, congressional critics in Washington blasted a report by the State Department stating that “Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning.” The June report looked mainly at public activities of Iranian leaders in Latin America, and not at clandestine operations, critics say.

Also, Kirk and other senators say Argentine President Cristina Fernández’s plan to create an Argentina-Iran commission that would supposedly investigate the 1994 bombings is a sham, and want President Barack Obama to denounce it. You don’t set up a joint investigative commission with somebody you have previously charged with mass murder, they say.

Nisman was invited to testify in the U.S. Congress last month about Iran’s influence in Latin America, but he could not attend because Argentina’s government had denied him authorization.

Some Iran-watchers in Washington say that the State Department will probably reevaluate its previous assessment that Iran’s clout in Latin America is waning.

“They will study the Nisman report, and they’ll find a politically correct way to walk back from their previous report, and to integrate Nisman’s findings,” says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

My opinion: Until now, the Obama administration has tried to avoid a fight with Latin American countries over Iran, and it may want to wait for the signals coming from its new president before turning Iran’s role in the region into a front-page issue.

But that may change in coming months because of congressional pressure, and because of Iran’s behavior abroad. Just over the past two years, U.S. prosecutors have charged Iran with trying to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, and Iran’s fascist regime has been linked to recent assassination attempts on Israeli diplomats in Bulgaria, India, Georgia and Thailand.

If Rouhani turns out to be just as bad as his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as many of us suspect, U.S. officials may look into the Nisman report with a microscope and act accordingly, as they should.

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