Even as his government back home was sentencing to death an American citizen it outrageously claims is a spy, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embarked on a five-day visit to four of Latin America’s most anti-American regimes: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Cuba.
Naturally, Ahmadinejad’s visit started with his pal, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (whose consul general in Miami is reportedly being booted for scheming with Iranian operatives on possible cyberattacks against us).
The “diabolical duo” then will head to Nicaragua, where they’ll attend the inauguration of re-elected President Daniel Ortega, a fan of the Iranian Revolution since his Sandinista days during the Cold War.
Ahmadinejad’s stops in Ecuador and Cuba will serve only to prove that their leaders, Rafael Correa and Raul Castro, have little real interest in improving relations with the United States, but still expect the Obama administration to look the other way as they sidle up to our enemy.
Why Latin America — and why now? Well, Ahmadinejad’s power back home is in question. Posing as a global player by jetting half way around the world to the Americas may help silence not only his critics within the regime but also ease tensions from the Iranian people, who sense Tehran’s increasing isolation and still resent the stolen 2009 presidential election.
To the same end, Iran is looking for friends that might help it fight potential diplomatic condemnation and evade economic sanctions imposed because of its nuke program.
Those sanctions are finally starting to have real teeth. Last week, the United States announced plans to penalize Iran’s Central Bank, making it harder for Tehran to sell oil — its main source of hard currency. (Europe may ban Iranian crude, but is worried about a ban’s economic impact.)
It has long been a concern that Iran is using Latin America, especially Venezuela, to circumvent international restrictions on its banking, as well as to gain banned materials and technologies for its missile and nuclear programs.
The diplomatic visits to Latin America — plus a few billion dollars in trade and investment and an increasing number of embassies (six new ones in the region since 2005) — provide Iran with the “cover” for all manner of dark dealings.
It gets worse.
A 2010 Pentagon report to Congress on the Iranian military noted that the Qods Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard “maintains operational capabilities around the world . . . Recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.”
Any skepticism about that assessment was dashed with the news last fall that Qods forces and a henchman tried to hire a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US and to bomb Israeli and Saudi embassies in Washington and Buenos Aires.
Indeed, it’s long been believed that, in the event of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran’s operatives — or its proxies — would likely attack the homeland and/or US interests in Latin America.
Although the plots were pretty ham-handed by most standards, it shows that operations like this are on the drawing board. “What’s next?” is a very reasonable question — and a threat we should take seriously.
Iran wants the United States out of the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf — and also wants to remind us that it, too, can be a player in our neighborhood.
As pernicious as Persian power is in the Middle East, it’s especially troubling around here. Ahmadinejad’s visit is a stark reminder that this is no time for shilly-shallying on counteracting Iran’s iniquity in this hemisphere.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in The New York Post