Expert: Iran a major presence in South America

Washington, Feb. 15 - Iran is making serious inroads in Latin American countries and particularly Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has rapidly expanded cooperation with the Islamic Republic, a former American diplomat in the region said Wednesday.

“Iran is making the most of Chavez’s hospitality in Venezuela to carry this struggle to our doorstep and pose a threat to our security,” Ambassador Roger F. Noriega told listeners on a conference call hosted by The Israel Project.

Noriega served as U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2003-2005, among other senior diplomatic roles involving Latin America. He is scheduled to testify tomorrow (Feb. 16) at a congressional hearing about Iranian influence in South America.

Chavez, who has cancer, has made anti-American and pro-Iranian regime sentiment a cornerstone of his foreign policy. The two-time Bush appointee said there was a lot of evidence to suggest that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cooperates with Chavez closely in economic and military spheres, but that the nature of such efforts is still secret.

The two presidents “are working together to wage a war against U.S. security,” Noriega said.

One of the most obvious but often overlooked signs of such collusion is the regular, mysterious flights between Caracas and Tehran that Noriega said shuttle terrorist operatives between the two capitals.

Also on such flights are officials from Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon and a longtime enemy of Israel. The group uses both Venezuela and other Latin American states including Brazil as a revenue stream by partnering with drug traffickers and major organized crime, Noriega said.

Although Fox News reported in September 2010 that the Tehran-Damascus-Caracas flight was canceled, Noriega said that his sources claim the flights are still running regularly.

In Mexico, reports of Hezbollah infiltrating Mexican drug cartels are “episodic,” and Noriega said that he’s reassured by the Mexican authorities’ concern for the problem.

In October 2011, an Iranian-American, acting on behalf of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was arrested for allegedly conspiring with an individual he believed was tied to a violent Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and bomb the Israeli embassy.

“What’s important is that the Mexicans take this very very seriously,” Noriega said.

Noriega said that the Iranian plot against the Saudi envoy shows that Congress needs to take immediate, decisive action to assess and confront Iran’s influence in America’s neighboring states.

“It’s very dangerous for us to think that Iran or a radical friend like Venezuela wouldn’t use this asymmetrical weapon of terrorism to attack our interests or our allies in the region,” he said.


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