Until Chavez assumed power Iran’s presence in the Western Hemisphere was not as strong as it is today. Its proxy, Hezbollah, had presence and even committed a number of atrocities in Latin America such as the attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires. However, its presence increased manifold since Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution began to spread throughout the hemisphere.
Not surprisingly the Iranians have tried to carry out another act of terrorism by attempting to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States with the help of a Mexican criminal group. Iran intended to carry out this attack by using an American citizen of Iranian origins who contacted a member of a well-known Mexican gang and drug cartel called “The Zetas”. It was also disclosed that during their exchanges, they discussed attacks on Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington and Buenos Aires.
This event surprised a number of analysts and journalists including the New York Times because Iran usually carries out its terrorist attacks through proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Mahdi Army. This time, however, Iran sought the help of a drug cartel and a gang that seeks to make money and not to carry out political terrorist attacks.
Thus, Max Aub, a Mexican journalist working in Miami, raised the question on Spanish language TV, why would the Zetas undertake such a risky operation for such a small amount of money- only $ 1.5 million?
From a different angle, Ali Alfoneh, an expert on Iran at the American Enterprise Institute doubts that Ayatollah Ali Khamanei planned such an attack because “he is a very cautious statesman and thus he would not gamble on something that involves so many risks”. In Mr. Alfoneh’s view, this plot is indicative of an internal struggle within the Iranian leadership.
Nevertheless, the Menges Hemispheric Security Project has been warning for some time of the connections between Middle Eastern terrorist groups, rogue states and drug cartels. (See the latest here ).
Unlike countries in the Middle East where Iran has at its disposal, proxy groups such as the ones mentioned above, countries like those in the Western Hemisphere- far away from Iran’s natural geographical sphere of influence-consist of relatively unknown territory for Iran. Drug cartels and other local criminal elements on the other hand, being heavily involved in many types of criminal activities, possess logistical and strategic knowledge of their operational territory and are therefore capable of providing a tremendous service to rogue states with terrorist intentions such as Iran.
The attacks carried out by Iran against the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 respectively are a case in point. During the investigation of these attacks it became clear that top officers of the Buenos Aires Province-which is the largest and one of the most corrupt police forces in Argentina- were involved in providing logistical and institutional support to the terrorists who carried out the attack. The cases against these police officers were dismissed for reasons that are not at all clear or justified (except on internal political grounds).
In the case of the plot against the Saudi Ambassador, the logic seems to be that the Iranians knew that the “Zetas” had ways to penetrate U. S. territory, since they have already done it. Also, the “Zetas” is the most ruthless and murderous group of all the drug cartels and gangs combined. The “Zetas” have been responsible for many massacres in Mexico, including mass murder of immigrants near the border, as well as kidnapping and extortion activities and piracy. In addition, they have been the main providers of fire -power initially to the Mexican Gulf Cartel and most recently to the families that control drug trafficking in Guatemala. Of course the “Zetas” are a drug cartel. However, they have always mainly been a supplier of violence. I would dare to say that for the “Zetas” being a killing and torture machine comes first and being a drug cartel comes second. Ruthlessness and audacity are key factors that the Iranians need. In answering the question why the “Zetas” would take such risk when the profit is not worthwhile, we can say that killing is part of the equation. Drug gangs are not there only for the money. There is a psychological element that plays a role. Killing is a challenge that is not necessarily limited by the need to make a profit. As an example a Mexican gang leader captured by Mexican authorities last summer, Oscar Garcia, admitted to killing 300 people with his own hands (he used to sadistically decapitate his victims with a knife) and ordered the death of another 300 people. This man- who confessed not without amusement that he was born to kill- began his career, like the majority of the “Zetas” members, in the police and the military. In other words, this is a vivid example of a man who joins the drug cartels not to become rich but to kill. It is safe to assume that he is not the only one.
It was the Iranian Quds force that planned the plot. Interestingly enough, the Quds force was established as a special branch of the Revolutionary Guards to help export the revolution through subversion and terrorism. Therefore, the Quds Force’s activities take place beyond the borders of Iran and it reports directly to the Supreme leader, Ali Khameini, and most probably to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well. There is no reason to believe that these leaders did not know about the plot. To talk about an internal plot against the will of these leaders whose ruthlessness has been proven beyond any doubt, is also a baseless speculation.
A totalitarian state such as Iran is designed to inflict damage on what it considers to be its enemy. Iran has carried out a number of operations where it has not assumed responsibility for them. First the attacks in Buenos Aires mentioned above; the attacks on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996; a series of attacks on Paris’ metro systems; the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 from Athens to London in 1985 where a U.S navy diver was murdered and others. Iran never assumed responsibility of these lethal attacks precisely because evidence beyond reasonable doubt against Iran was never clear. It was always Lebanese Shiites or unknown people who committed these crimes. This time Iran tried to do the same thing, which is to carry out an attack where there is no evidence of its involvement.
As scholar, Walid Phares, has rightly pointed out in an interview with Fox News, “in its operation against embassies in DC, Iran’s regime subcontracted cartels to strike, so that the Ayatollahs would escape international responsibility”.
At this point there is little reason to doubt Iran’s responsibility for the plot against the Saudi Ambassador. What Iran is capable of doing on American soil or in any other country in the Western Hemisphere is a serious challenge that cannot be ignored. It requires heavy involvement by the White House. It cannot be delegated to any bureaucracy or agency that would treat these events as business as usual.
Iran has allies in the Western Hemisphere, first and foremost Venezuela under the leadership of Hugo Chavez. But other countries, following Chavez’ lead, such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua have also deepened relations with Iran at a very dangerous level.
Venezuela is Iran’s Main Gate to the Western Hemisphere
Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, has been a major facilitator of the Iranian banking system by helping create a joint Iranian Venezuelan bank to fund “development” projects. CSP staff member, Nicolas Hanlon reported that this bank is the offspring of The Export Development Bank of Iran. This Iranian institution is under sanctions from both the U.S. Treasury and the international community for its alleged involvement in Iran’s nuclear program. The joint bank venture is aimed at finding new ways to finance Iran’s nuclear program, and mainly avoid sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community.
Moreover, Chavez also maintains a relationship with the Al Quds Force.
In fact, in January 2009, the Italian daily “La Stampa”, reported that the regular flights between Caracas, Damascus and Tehran constitute a device for Venezuela to help Iran send Syria material for the manufacture of missiles. Accordingly, the materials are destined for the “Revolutionary Guards”, the main force protecting the Iranian regime. In exchange for those materials Iran provided Venezuela with members of their revolutionary guards and their elite unit, “Al Quds”, to strengthen Venezuela’s secret services and police. Finally, In April 2010, the Pentagon reported the presence of the Quds Force in Venezuela.
Chavez also provides logistical help to Iran. In 2008, it was reported at a conference organized by the CSP Menges Hemispheric Security Project that there were Iranian partnerships with dubious local businessmen in factories located in sensitive areas with access to strategic routes. One of the speakers at the conference talked about those partnerships as possibly including connections between drug trafficking networks that control sensitive strategic areas and Iran. In fact, Iran has established a financial and business infrastructure with Chavez’s consent and encouragement that now includes banks, gold mining, a cement plant, a tractor and bicycle factory, a tuna processing plant and a joint oil venture. On December 30th, 2008 twenty two containers were confiscated from an Iranian cargo ship bound for Venezuela. When the Turkish authorities inspected the shipment, they did not find tractor parts but components to build weapons, bombs and possibly some radioactive material (See story here)
Finally, a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that for some time Venezuelan ports and airports are being freely used by drug traffickers. It is no secret that Venezuela has become a major trans-shipment point for drugs coming from Colombia and Ecuador and that Chavez has close connections to the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) who in turn work closely with the Mexican cartels.
U.S. Policy Action Required: Sanctions Against Venezuela Are Crucial
Thus far, U.S. policy has detached Venezuela policy from Iranian policy despite everything mentioned above. Venezuela has served as Iran’s main ally in helping Iran to avoid sanctions, to increase its presence in the Western Hemisphere and has even maintained nuclear cooperation with Iran.
Currently there are sanctions against Iran imposed by the United Nations and by the United States. These are sanctions directed primarily against Iran’s energy sector but these measures need to be fully implemented. In addition, the Central Bank of Iran must be sanctioned. This past August, more than 90 U.S. senators signed a letter to President Barack Obama pressing him to sanction Iran’s central bank, with some, threatening legislation to force the move. Such a step could freeze Iran out of the global financial system.
In regard to Venezuela, U.S policy has been very mild towards Chavez for fear of looking like a “bully” and for fear of losing influence on a continent where the left has gained substantial power.
The Venezuelan oil-giant PDVSA was mildly sanctioned last summer. The sanctions imposed on PDVSA only prohibit the company from obtaining either a U.S. export visa or money from the U.S. Import-Export Bank, as well as banning them from attempting to obtain U.S. procurement contracts. These sanctions, however, are remarkably limited in scope. They do not affect PDVSA’s U.S. branch (CITGO), nor does it stop the import of Venezuelan oil to the U.S. About 10% of the total oil the U.S imports comes from Venezuela. (See more about sanctions on Venezuela here)
Since Venezuela is a key Iran partner it only makes sense for the United States, the European Union and the United Nations to impose sanctions on Venezuela, as well. Additional sanctions against Iran will only be partially effective as long as the Iranian government has carte blanche to launder their money through the Venezuelan banking system.
The U.S needs to be assertive also with other countries in Latin America that maintain relations with Iran. Not only Chavez and his Bolivarian allies hold strong relations with Iran but also moderate socialist countries such as Brazil and Uruguay have strengthened their relations with Iran as a show of independence from the United States. This includes trade relations and stronger political relations. With news about murderous Iranian intentions, it is vital that the United States along with Europeans press Latin American countries to distance themselves from Iran and join the sanctions policy.
In conclusion, security challenges emanating from the Western Hemisphere have long been neglected. It is not that surprising that Iran hatched a plot reaching out to a Mexican drug cartel to carry it out. What is surprising is the lack of awareness of Iran’s substantial presence in our hemisphere and the seeming nonchalance with which the U. S. treats this ever rising danger.
Originally published at The Americas Report, a project of the Center for Security Policy.