Shadow Government

Soft-Pedaling the Iranian Threat in the Americas

Three months after Southcom commander Gen. John F. Kelly told the House Armed Services Committee that the United States needs to be "extremely concerned" about Iran’s expanding presence in the Western Hemisphere, the State Department has just informed Congress that Iran’s regional influence is "waning."  Indeed, even though around the same time Kelly told an audience at the ...

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Three months after Southcom commander Gen. John F. Kelly told the House Armed Services Committee that the United States needs to be "extremely concerned" about Iran’s expanding presence in the Western Hemisphere, the State Department has just informed Congress that Iran’s regional influence is "waning." 

Indeed, even though around the same time Kelly told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that he is constantly approached by his regional counterparts requesting any information he can provide them on Iranian activities in the hemisphere, the State Department is reporting to Congress that it "will work closely with and inform our partners in the hemisphere about malign Iranian activities."

The State Department’s assertions come in a two-page unclassified annex to a long-awaited classified report to Congress mandated by the bipartisan Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama late last year. It directs the secretary of state to "conduct an assessment of the threats posed to the United States by Iran’s growing presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere and submit to the relevant congressional committees the results of the assessment and a strategy to address Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere."

Granted, the bulk of the report is classified, but it is not difficult to conclude that its tone is unlikely to diverge much from the unclassified annex — and that is deeply disturbing.

Especially when just last month an Argentine prosecutor added to the growing paper trail on Iran’s nefarious activities in the Americas by releasing a 500-page report detailing how Iran has systematically built a clandestine intelligence network throughout the region "designed to sponsor, foster and execute terrorist attacks." 

The prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who investigated the notorious 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, provides compelling evidence of covert Iranian activity in numerous countries, including Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname.

Undoubtedly, the Nisman report will be a focus of attention when the House Homeland Security Committee holds a hearing on July 9 on the State Department report. Already, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), who sponsored the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act and is chairing the hearing, has expressed his displeasure with the unclassified annex. He said in a statement, "I believe that the Administration has failed to consider the seriousness of Iran’s presence here at home."

Ironically, one of the objectives of Duncan’s legislation was to foster better interagency cooperation on addressing the Iranian presence in the hemisphere. I attended the CSIS forum with General Kelly and can unequivocally say he gave no impression that his concerns about Iran in the hemisphere were "waning." He quite rightly pointed out how easy it is for anyone wishing to do the United States harm to meld with the criminal networks that can move anything to the United States’ borders within days or hours: drugs, people, contraband, anything….

By this time, the penetration of the Western Hemisphere by Iran — and its proxy, Hezbollah — should be a subject beyond debate, especially after the assessment by the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, following the 2011 Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., "that some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime."

In this light, there remains no defensible reason for the State Department to continue to soft-pedal the issue, whether the department believes for some reason that it complicates negotiations over Iran’s illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons or because it offends the sensitivities of some Latin American governments. Congress is right to demand accountability on the matter. Iran is playing for the highest stakes; it is high time the United States did as well.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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