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The Iranian Threat in Latin America

10:46 AM, Jul 15, 2013 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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If you’re concerned that the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism has been expanding its strategic footprint in the Western Hemisphere, the Obama administration has a reassuring message for you: “Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning.” That’s the conclusion of a State Department report issued late last month. (The report itself is classified, but Foggy Bottom released an unclassified summary of its policy recommendations, from which the above quote is taken.)


The timing of this report was rather awkward. A few weeks earlier, Argentine special prosecutor Alberto Nisman had unveiled a massive, 500-page dossier exploring Iran’s hemispheric terror links and its broader strategy for exporting violent revolution. (An English-language summary can be found here.) Nisman’s findings suggest that the State Department might want to reconsider its assumptions about Iranian influence in the Americas.

Start with Argentina. Nisman has spent years investigating the 1994 Iranian-backed bombing that killed 85 people and injured hundreds more at the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. In 2006, he formally accused Tehran of plotting the attack and using its terrorist proxy Hezbollah to carry it out. Interpol subsequently issued “red notices” (basically the equivalent of global arrest warrants) for several Iranian officials, including Ahmad Vahidi, the former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander who has been serving as Iran’s defense minister since 2009.

Nisman’s new report explains that Tehran began laying the groundwork for the 1994 massacre back in the 1980s, when it dispatched Iranian cleric Mohsen Rabbani to Argentina. Rabbani formally served as Iran’s cultural attaché in Buenos Aires. Behind the scenes, however, he was building the intelligence structure that would eventually allow Iranian agents to execute the AMIA bombing (and also the 1992 bombing of Israel’s Buenos Aires embassy). Indeed, Nisman fingers Rabbani as the mastermind of the attack. (He was one of the Iranians for whom Interpol issued red notices in 2007.)

The attack occurred at a moment when “Latin America was being strongly and aggressively infiltrated by Iran.” Not only had the Iranians created a sophisticated intelligence apparatus in Argentina, they had also penetrated Guyana, the small South American country that borders Venezuela, Brazil, and Suriname. Their chief agent in Guyana was a Guyanese man named Abdul Kadir, who in the 1990s served as mayor of the country’s second-biggest city and who later became a member of the Guyanese parliament. Six years ago, Kadir was arrested for conspiring to bomb New York City’s JFK International Airport. According to Nisman, the bomb plot was an Iranian-devised scheme—and before he was arrested, Kadir “had repeated contacts with Mohsen Rabbani.” A confidential informant has testified that Kadir and his terrorist allies “wanted to form an organization like Hezbollah in the Caribbean.” (In 2010, Kadir was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the airport bomb plot.)

Both Kadir and Rabbani tried to spread Iran’s revolution across the hemisphere. Thanks to their efforts and the work of other Iranian spies, says Nisman, the Islamic Republic has established “clandestine intelligence stations and operative agents” throughout Latin America. He finds evidence that, in addition to Argentina and Guyana, Iranian agents have been active in countries as diverse as Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago, and Uruguay. They have been particularly active in the lawless Tri-Border Area, which comprises the intersection of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

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