While Congress struggled to approve legislation to avert the much-hyped “fiscal cliff”, a bill addressing “Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere” quietly and smoothly swept through both houses before the end of the legislative session. The bill, which requires the State Department to develop a strategy to address the Iranian regional “threat”, was signed into law by President Obama on December 28th.
If you haven’t heard of the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012” (H.R. 3783), that may be because you aren’t a faithful reader of the neoconservative Commentary Magazine, which urged President Obama to sign the bill; or of the web page of the Heritage Foundation. Nor did you receive the press release of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) that applauded the bill’s passage and noted that it would help “turn back Iranian attempts to establish bases, subvert the economic relationships between the US and Latin America, and the establishment of covert abilities to promote terrorism in countries close to our own US borders.” The ZOA is an organization with links to Israel’s far right and counts among its members rightwing billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moskowitz, best known for their hardline pro-settlement and anti-Iran positions and their generous donations to Republican super Pacs during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Indeed, though the bill was approved nearly unanimously in both chambers, only far right organizations appear to have openly supported it.
There is little doubt that Iran has sought to increase its diplomatic and economic presence in Latin America in recent years, as have China and Russia. The Iranian government has opened up new embassies in the region and President Ahmadinejad has gone on several trips to Latin America. But H.R. 3783, in its “findings”, alleges that Iran is involved in far more nefarious activities in the region.
The bill asserts that operatives belonging to the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government, “have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America” and alleges “direct Iranian government support of Hezbollah activities in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.” It also claims that
Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies with a presence in Latin America have raised revenues through illicit activities, including drug and arms trafficking, counterfeiting, money laundering, forging travel documents, pirating software and music, and providing haven and assistance to other terrorists transiting the region.
These allegations sound serious, but where do they come from? The U.S. government hasn’t produced evidence of Iran carrying out these types of illicit activities in the region. So, what are the sources that the bill’s authors relied on?
Again, no need to look further than the Beltway’s far right think tanks. For example, the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Noriega and José Cardenas published a report in October 2011 entitled “The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America.” Noriega and Cardenas, both former George W. Bush State Department officials, have adopted extreme positions in the past. When he was U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States in 2002, Noriega supported the short-lived coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. In 2009, both Noriega and Cardenas lobbied in favor of the military coup d’etat that took place in Honduras in June of that year. Noriega, over the years, has gained a reputation for outlandish and extreme conspiracy mongering.
Noriega and Cardenas’ report contains claims that are eerily similar to those found in the bill:
Hezbollah's presence in Latin America dates to the mid-1980s, when it began sending operatives into the notoriously lawless region known as the tri-border area (TBA)—where the borders of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet—to use it as a principal safe haven for fundraising, money laundering, recruitment, training, plotting, and other terrorist-related activities. Their activity also includes drug and arms trafficking, counterfeiting, forging travel documents, and pirating software and music. Their resulting proselytizing has led to the creation of numerous Hezbollah cells, with an estimated 460 operatives in the TBA by mid-2000.
The report’s main source for these assertions is a 2003 paper by Rex A. Hudson that, in turn, relies primarily on dubious media sources that offer speculative comment rather than hard facts. Hudson’s previous works have focused on Cuba’s alleged sponsorship of terrorist activities in the region. In 1988 he authored a study entitled “Castro's America Department: Coordinating Cuba's Support for Marxist-Leninist Violence in the Americas” published by the rightwing exile group Cuban American National Foundation.
Douglas Farah, Senior Fellow of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, is another rightwing “expert” from the Beltway who has accused Iran of fomenting anti-U.S. terror plots against the U.S., allegedly in collaboration with left-leaning Latin American governments. Farah, who previously claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood was infiltrating the Obama administration, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iran and several left Latin American governments:
bring a significant and dangerous new set of threats to the region as they work together with TOCs (transnational organized crime enterprises) and terrorist groups. This threat includes not only traditional TOC activities such as drug trafficking and human trafficking, but also the potential for WMD-related trafficking. These activities are carried out with the participation of regional and extra regional state actors whose leaders are deeply enmeshed in criminal activities. These same leaders have a publicly articulated doctrine of asymmetrical warfare against the United States and its allies that explicitly endorses as legitimate the use of weapons of mass destruction in that struggle.
It is unclear where Farah uncovered all the evidence for these terrifying plans, but one of the sources he cites is an amateurish documentary called the Iranian Threat that was produced by the Miami-based Univision Spanish-language network. Touted by the neo-conservative Hudson Institute and far right Cuban-American legislators, the documentary alleges that Iran, various Latin-American countries and a group of Mexican students were plotting to wage cyber warfare on the U.S., based mainly on the testimony of one of the students.
Over the last year, Farah, Noriega and former Reagan and Bush officials Otto Reich and Norman Bailey have been part of a joint offensive to get Congress and the Obama administration to clamp down on Iran’s alleged hostile, covert activities in Latin America. Their efforts have been supported by rightwing advocacy organizations, like ZOA which deployed “two hundred of our activists” to lobby for passage of H.R. 3783 while visiting the offices of their members of Congress.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the bill was introduced in January 2012 by a far-right Republican, Representative Jeff Duncan, a strong supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. More puzzling, and troubling, is the fact that the bill passed in the House with only six dissenting votes. A few progressive Democrats abstained from voting, but only one Democratic representative, outgoing Congressman Dennis Kucinich, voted against it. In the Senate, the bill apparently encountered no resistance and was approved by “unanimous consent.”
Though H.R. 3783’s far-fetched claims and hawkish language harken back to Reagan-era legislative measures focused on the Cuban and Soviet “menace” in Central America, there has been no real pushback to the bill or to other manifestations of this latest neo-conservative campaign. Self-proclaimed liberal analysts have participated in Congressional hearings on the Iranian regional “threat” but have failed to point out their rightwing colleagues’ false and unfounded allegations. This fear of stating the obvious seems to have taken grip of nearly every Democrat in Congress.
The Obama administration itself also appears to have caved into the pressure generated by the far right think tanks and their grassroots partners. In her first and only major speech on U.S. policy in Latin America in December 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned Iran several times in a threatening tone. Among other things she said:
I think that if people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them, and we hope that they will think twice, and we're going to support them if they do.
Over the last four years, the Obama administration has essentially recycled the Latin America policy espoused by George W. Bush during his second term in office. By approving H.R. 3783, both Congress and the administration are ceding even more terrain to the far right. In doing so, they contribute to further perpetuating the hawkish Cold War era vision of the region that links independent, left-wing political movements and governments in Latin America to distant perceived enemies, whether they be the Soviet Union or Iran. It’s time for cooler heads in Washington, and throughout the country, to take action to prevent U.S. policy in the region from sinking into a toxic morass similar to that of the 1980s.