Argument

Iran May Be Eyeing the United States’ Soft Underbelly

When Iran takes revenge for the killing of Qassem Suleimani, history suggests it could happen in Latin America.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro before the opening ceremony in the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Porlamar, Margarita Island, Venezuela, on Sept. 17, 2016. JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images

Following the U.S. killing of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, in January, most attention focused on how Iran would react. Ultimately, the Iranians did so with rocket attacks targeting Iraqi bases where both Iraqi and American troops were stationed. The attacks did not result in any American deaths (although soldiers reported traumatic brain injuries), and shortly after Iran stated publicly that it had achieved the “great revenge” it sought against the United States.

Yet few knowledgeable observers believe that Tehran is finished with its response to the loss of its high-level military commander, who also held unique political clout in Iran. Esmail Qaani, Suleimani’s replacement as the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, inherits a deep proxy network of capable actors such as Hezbollah in far-flung places, raising the specter of a retaliatory attack against U.S. interests or U.S. allies abroad.

The Suleimani strike is reminiscent of Israel’s targeted assassination of Hezbollah co-founder, and then-secretary-general, Abbas Musawi, in February 1992. Iran responded to that strike by targeting Israeli interests in Latin America, leveraging its Hezbollah proxy network to plan and execute bombings in Buenos Aires in both 1992 and, allegedly, in 1994. These strikes were massive and devastating—killing over 100 civilians and wounding several hundred more. In the wake of the Suleimani killing, Iran may look abroad to seek revenge and could do so again in Latin America, where Hezbollah maintains deep roots. The United States, Israel, and U.S. Latin American allies must be vigilant in defending against potential Iranian retaliation in the region, given its history of shocking attacks in Argentina.

During a recent visit to Colombia to participate in the Organization of American States (OAS) annual ministerial conference on terrorism, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted Hezbollah’s activities in South America and the robust material support the group receives from the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela. This nexus dates back to the time of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who offered Iran a financial workaround during the initial period of U.S. sanctions. During this period, Iran developed joint military doctrine focused on asymmetric warfare, engaged in joint military training, and built the architecture for important illicit pipelines and clandestine networks. In total, Iran constructed 11 embassies and, by some counts, was involved with over 100 “unofficial cultural centers” throughout Latin America.

Iran also works behind the scenes to influence a range of non-Islamic groups throughout Latin America, including the Quebracho group in Argentina. These groups adhere to a blend of revolutionary and leftist ideologies, and Tehran demonstrates its ideological flexibility by pushing the narrative of anti-imperialism, Bolivarianism, and anti-Americanism, all of which resonate more directly with these groups. They also provide Iran with options beyond Hezbollah to conduct acts of sabotage and politically and ideologically motivated violence throughout the Southern Andes.

Hezbollah’s presence has been nurtured by high-level political figures such as Tareck El Aissami, former vice president of Venezuela and current minister of industries and national production, who has been accused of encouraging its growth through immigration and the granting of false documents at consulates throughout the Middle East. One Maduro opponent has said Hezbollah is exploiting gold mines and other resource extraction in Venezuela’s Bolivar state. Much of this gold is ferried out of Venezuela by abusing the diplomatic pouch and operating near-empty flights between Tehran and Caracas. Recently, the United States sanctioned Conviasa, the Venezuelan state-owned airline in charge of operating the weekly flight nicknamed “aero-terror,” aimed strictly at sanctions-busting and the trafficking of weapons, gold, and people.

Beyond Venezuela, Hezbollah also maintains a strong presence in the tri-border area, at the borders of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Over time, the group inserted itself into the hemisphere’s lucrative drug trafficking and weapons smuggling networks and became key money launderers, activity estimated as of 2003 to generate between $300 million and $500 million per year for all Islamist groups in the area. (Under the Obama administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration ceased Project Cassandra, an investigation of Hezbollah’s sprawling Latin America network.) The Clan Barakat group, which laundered money through casinos in the tri-border area and whose leader is said to have ties to Hezbollah leadership, demonstrates that Latin America’s deeply ingrained organized crime networks and Islamic terrorist groups can work together quite fruitfully. The tri-border area also served as the planning and staging ground for the two deadliest terrorist attacks on South American soil—the aforementioned bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society (AMIA) in 1994.

Quite troublingly, the U.S. State Department has highlighted Caracas’s lack of cooperation with Washington in counterterrorism efforts, while also noting that Venezuela maintains a highly “permissive environment for known terrorist groups.” Maduro has enabled terrorist financial activities on Venezuelan territory. And Hezbollah is not the only terrorist threat that deserves mention in Latin America. Colombia recently detained three suspected members of al Qaeda attempting to enter its territory from Venezuela.

The OAS’s ministerial conferences have managed to elevate the issue of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere and pushed Latin American governments to take the threat more seriously. Last year, the Second Hemispheric Ministerial Conference on Terrorism issued a communique with warnings about Hezbollah’s “activities in some areas of the Western Hemisphere.” Argentina played host to the conference—on the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombings, no less—and, in dramatic fashion, designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Shortly thereafter, Paraguay followed Argentina’s Hezbollah designation with one of its own. After the most recent ministerial conference this year, Colombia, Honduras, and Guatemala all designated the group as a terrorist organization as well. Brazil and other countries in the region should follow suit, and future OAS ministerial conferences should focus on greater harmonization of the region’s legal frameworks for fighting terrorism and the illicit activities that often finance it.

Since an Iranian strike on the U.S. homeland in response to the Suleimani strike would be incredibly difficult to achieve—and would incur harsh American retaliation—most observers expect Iran to call on its deep proxy networks to execute a series of asymmetric attacks against U.S. interests and allies abroad, perhaps spread out over time and space.

If history is any guide, in the quest to continue avenging Suleimani’s death, Iran would be willing to consider an attack in Latin America as a means of sending an undeniable signal to the United States—to wit, of its continued capability to escalate with a strike in America’s backyard.

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research includes Latin American foreign-policy issues.

Colin P. Clarke is a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center and an assistant teaching professor in the Institute for Politics & Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. Twitter: @ColinPClarke

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