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Iran in Latin America is no laughing matter

Iran in Latin America is no laughing matter

On his current tour of Latin American outliers, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stopped in Venezuela this week to share a belly-laugh with his compañero Hugo Chávez over the supposed nuclear threat either of their countries poses to the civilized world.

Gesticulating outside the presidential palace, Chávez said, "That hill will open up and a big atomic bomb will come out," with Ahmadinejad adding that any bomb they would build together would be fueled by "love."

A couple of real cut-ups.

While their mockery should fall flat amongst most sober observers, the fact remains that much of Washington is still unable to grasp the nature and dimensions of the Iranian threat in Latin America.

For example, elsewhere on this site, Michael Shifter, a perceptive analyst of Latin American politics, fails to contemplate the worst of Iran’s intentions and argues instead that Iran hasn’t managed to meet many of its economic pledges in the region, and has equally failed in making inroads with the biggest power players of the region, such as Brazil.

That, indeed, may be true, but neither is relevant to Iran’s covert agenda of evading international sanctions and developing contingencies if the cold war with the United States was to suddenly turn hot.

Indeed, for the past twelve months or so, skeptics have proven more diligent in attempting to debunk reports of Iranian-Venezuelan collusion than following where the (prodigious) trail leads. The hoary "no smoking gun" is continually trotted out to summarily end any discussion.

But for anyone who cares to look, the public record is filled with more than enough information to elicit serious concern about the Iranian threat and spur demand that Washington take more concerted action. Consider just the following:

Money Laundering: Iran has already been caught evading sanctions through Venezuela when an Iranian bank in Caracas was sanctioned by the Treasury Department for providing financial services to Iran’s military.

Drugs: U.S. law enforcement officials believe that a weekly commercial flight between Caracas and Tehran and Damascus (dubbed "Aero-Terror" by Brazilian intelligence because no one knows who or what are on those flights) is used to traffic illicit drugs from South America to the Middle East.

Uranium: Venezuela possesses vast amounts of uranium, primarily in the Roraima Basin along its border with Guyana. Across the border in Guyana, a Canadian company is mining uranium. On the Venezuelan side of the border, we are to believe Iran is operating a "gold mine."

Weapons: In two cases made public, ships smuggling either bomb-making equipment from Iran to Venezuela or weapons to Hezbollah from Venezuela were intercepted.

Terrorism: A member of the terrorist network plotting to detonate fuel tanks at JFK International Airport in New York in 2007 was arrested on the run to Venezuela where he planned to board a flight to Tehran. An explosive documentary, "The Iranian Threat," aired last month on Univision, presenting not only incriminating information on Venezuelan and Iranian diplomats discussing cyberattacks on sensitive U.S. computer systems (the State Department subsequently expelled the Venezuelan diplomat from the U.S., where she had been re-posted), but also compelling evidence on how young Latinos are targeted for recruitment and paramilitary training in Iran and Venezuelan camps visited by Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Colombian FARC.

Again, this is but a sliver of the information that has already been made public about Iran-Venezuela machinations. Instead of pundits pining for that "smoking gun," they should be demanding what is it that we don’t know?

Thankfully, Capitol Hill is starting to get active on this issue and will press the administration for answers on these important questions when they return later this month. The White House will also likely find itself on the defensive on this issue during this election year — and that is all to the good if it focuses policymakers minds on the problem.

And as the layers of the Iranian-Venezuelan relationship continued to be stripped away, it is a virtual certainty that even more distressing details of the threat posed to the United States will emerge. But the longer we wait, it will prove only more difficult to counteract.