Growing Concern about Iran's Influence in Latin America

Latin America and the Caribbean

Yesterday, at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing "To receive testimony on the United States Southern Command, United States Northern Command, United States Africa Command, and United States Transportation Command," U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the commander of Southcom, brought up concerns regarding the increased Iranian and Hezbollah activities in Latin America. His comments appear to serve to expand upon U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' comments at his confirmation hearing that Iran's influence in Latin America was of greater concern that Russia's (see our previous blog on this here). Today, various news outlets reported on Admiral Stavridis' concerns and once again brought the idea to the public's eye that Iran's increased influence and presence in the region could be a threat to U.S. national security. Admiral Stavridis was not alarmist in his testimony about Hezbollah's influence in the region, yet he does say that Southcom has multiple strategies to keep them from getting a stronghold on the region, such as increased humanitarian assistance and regional cooperation. However, an article on the website of the conservative National Review published today, by Mario Loyola, tries to paint the picture that terrorists are taking over Latin America, making the region the "southern front in the War on Terror." Loyola claims that "There may be no direct connection between recent kidnappings in Phoenix and high-profile visits by Hugo Chávez to Tehran. But connect the dots, and you will see a transnational extremist-terrorist wave challenging the institutions of liberal democracy in Latin America. If that wave begins to win in Latin America, we will soon be facing it here at home, with potentially grave consequences for our security and our way of life." Recent talk by the Obama Administration on the instability of the region, specifically in regard to Mexico, and Capitol Hill's barrage of hearings over the past two weeks on drug violence and security in the region have all tended to hint at a need for increased military action in the region. However, a better strategy to defeat Iran's influence, which may or may not be an actual threat to the United States, would be for the Obama Administration to take a fresh approach and offer increased support for programs in Latin America aimed at fighting inequality and poverty, factors often cited as the main sources of instability in the region. To read articles from the past year following Iran's increasing influence and presence in Latin America, check out Just the Facts' news archives. Below are relevant excerpts from Admiral Stavridis' testimony on Iran, Hezbollah and the spread of Islamic terrorism in Latin America. His entire testimony (in pdf format) can be downloaded here.

Despite this "peaceful" state of the region from a state-on-state violence perspective, security challenges undoubtedly do exist. Narcoterrorism, drug trafficking, crime, gangs, and natural disasters pose the principal security challenges to the region and to the United States from the region. Also, the specter of transnational Islamic terrorism is of concern and bears due vigilance on our part.... One specific area of increasing concern is the nexus of illicit drug trafficking - including routes, profits, and corruptive influence - and terrorism. In the Western Hemisphere, the illicit drug trade historically has contributed, and continues to contribute, significant financial resources to known terrorist groups like the FARC in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru. Another threat to the United States is the nexus with Islamic radical terrorism. In August of last year, U.S. Southern Command supported a Drug Enforcement Administration operation, in coordination with host countries, which targeted a Hizballah-connected drug trafficking organization in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Last October, we supported another interagency operation that resulted in the arrests of several dozen individuals in Colombia associated with a Hizballah-connected drug trafficking and money laundering ring. Identifying, monitoring, and dismantling the financial, logistical, and communication linkages between illicit trafficking groups and terrorist sponsors are critical to not only ensuring early indications and warnings of potential terrorist attacks directed at the United States and our partners, but also in generating a global appreciation and acceptance of this tremendous threat to security.... Terrorist networks are active throughout our hemisphere. These networks include domestic narcoterrorists, such as the FARC, who mainly reside in Colombia, as well as the Shining Path Maoist-style narcoterrorists of Peru. Islamic terrorist networks are also active, primarily involved in fundraising and logistical support for parent organizations based in the Middle East, such as Hizballah and Hamas. Individuals with terrorist training and experience who could support or conduct terrorist attacks in our hemisphere may be present in the region, and our intelligence has demonstrated that pre-operational and operational activities have indeed occurred, as exemplified by the attempt to blow up fuel pipelines at the JFK airport in New York in 2007. Islamic terrorist networks are present in the Tri-border Area, as well as several other locations in the region. A robust Hizballah financial support network exists in the region, as well as an active group of sympathizers and supporters of Hizballah. Also present are Sunni groups,including Hamas, whose members possess operational backgrounds. Moreover, known al- Qa'ida members have journeyed to Latin America and the Caribbean and other terrorist-inspired Islamic radicals have been arrested in the region. As with all of the Department of Defense and other U.S. departments and agencies, U.S. Southern Command dedicates significant effort to remaining vigilant in the struggle against violent extremism. We have a regional plan to combat this threat through multiple avenues. This plan includes shaping the strategic environment through support to interagency humanitarian operations that impede radical organizations from gaining a foothold in the region, as well as building partner nation capacity to detect and defeat threats in a cooperative environment. These efforts will help ensure the forward defense of the United States and increased security for our partners.