- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Much of official Washington has been stunned by the Justice Department announcement this week that an Iranian-American, acting on behalf of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has been 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 carry out other possible terrorist activities.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for one, remarked, "The idea that [Iran] would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?"
But as outlandish as it may seem, it can also be seen as the fruits of Iran’s steady expansion into Latin America and attempts to make common cause with transnational criminal operations in its global conflict with the United States.
Last week, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega and I co-authored a paper, The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America, for the American Enterprise Institute, in which we establish that, over the last several years, Iran, with its Hezbollah proxy in tow, has made a major diplomatic and economic push into the Western Hemisphere. Their goals are three-fold: to break down their international isolation and gain access to strategic resources; undermine U.S. influence in the region; and establish a new platform from which to wage their war against the United States.
That effort has been largely facilitated by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who has served as the principal interlocutor on Iran’s behalf with other like-minded governments in the region, primarily the Rafael Correa and Evo Morales governments in Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively, who themselves have established dubious networks with criminal groups.
What experts say is new, however, and indicative of a deepening relationship, is Mexican drug traffickers’ increasing use of small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and car bombs in waging their mayhem in Mexico, an expertise for which Hezbollah is particularly known; and, secondly, the ongoing discovery of increasingly sophisticated narco-tunnels along the U.S.-Mexico border, which experts say resemble the type used by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Frankly, from their own warped perspectives, it would be more surprising if there was no cooperation between Iran-Hezbollah and Mexican cartels, given the obvious benefits to both criminal enterprises. The cartels are able to access Hezbollah’s smuggling and explosives expertise and links with drug trafficking networks in the Middle East and South Asia (the alleged Quds Force operative also reportedly offered opium shipments from the Middle East to Mexico). In turn, Iran and Hezbollah are able to establish a presence and develop assets in a lawless environment with ready access to the U.S. border that can go operational when the need arises — as it apparently did in this case.
To be sure, trying to arrange the assassination of a foreign diplomat on U.S. soil represents an ominous turn in Iranian strategy against the United States. In any case, the stakes are clear. In a May 2011 visit to Bolivia, Iranian Defense Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi proclaimed that in the event of any military confrontation between Iran and the United States, "The strong Iran is ready for enemy-crushing and tough response in case of any illogical and violent behavior by the U.S." It seems we now have a pretty good idea on how Iran will rely on its new-found friends in the Western Hemisphere to carry out that threat.