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Iran has sought to increase its influence in South America and undermine American interests and security, drawing little response from the Biden administration as it tries to salvage the Obama-era nuclear deal with the country.
“The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are much more actively involved in issues of subversion and assassination,” James Phillips, senior foreign policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told Fox News.
Phillips pointed to a 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the US neighborhood of Georgetown in Washington, D.C., noting that Iranian agents were seeking to partner with a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the plot on the American soil.
“That was over 10 years ago…it’s been going on for a long time,” Phillips said.
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Awareness of Iran in Latin America has apparently started to pick up in recent years, most recently with the appearance of a mysterious Venezuelan-flagged plane in Argentina last month. The plane, belonging to a US-sanctioned Iranian operator, landed in Ezeiza with a crew of 14 Venezuelans and five Iranians, one of whom was a senior Iranian official.
According to reports from the Wall Street Journal, the plane has since been seized and an investigation has been launched, but exactly why it was allowed to land in Argentina and what it was doing there remains somewhat of a mystery.
Argentine Federal Police searched the plane and found equipment used for military cyber defense operations on board, while it was reported that the captain of the plane was Gholamreza Ghasemi, a member of the board of directors and director of Fars Air Qeshm, an Iranian airline sanctioned by the United States.
Argentine President Alberto Fernández insisted there was nothing suspicious on the plane, while the country’s security minister claimed the captain only coincidentally shared the same name as Ghasemi, a claim contradicted by Paraguayan intelligence services and questioned by Argentine members of Congress.
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Although Iran has a long history of partnership with Venezuela, a country that has a history of seeking to undermine American interests, Iranian cooperation with democratic Argentina would be a more troubling development for the United States in the region.
A week before the plane landed in Ezeiza, Iran and Argentina applied to join BRICS, a group of five emerging economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China and the United States. South Africa. The group, which has held an annual summit since 2009, has significant influence in world affairs, presenting itself as an alternative to US-dominated Western alliances.
A spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry told Reuters that BRICS membership would bring added values to both sides,” while Russia boasted that the United States was failing to reduce its international influence. as part of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Iranian influence in South America would benefit Russia, which under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin has set itself the goal of eroding American influence in the region.
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“Moscow has deepened its ties with other authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, as part of a long-term strategy to establish a permanent presence in the region,” said Rebekah Koffler, president of Doctrine. & Strategy Consulting, former DIA intelligence officer. and the author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America,” told Fox News.
Koffler said Russia’s goals are not just to gain access to new markets and resources as much of the world tries to isolate the country, but to demonstrate to the United States that it can operate militarily. in America’s backyard.
“Ultimately, Russia wants to build a formidable position of strength on America’s doorstep, as a deterrent, which Moscow can activate in the event Washington intervenes with Putin’s plans to reestablish control of the former Soviet states of Russia, like Ukraine,” Koffler said. .
The mysterious plane in Argentina is not the only sign that Iran is seeking to strengthen its influence in Latin America. Earlier this year, Iran’s Vice President for Economic Affairs, Mohsen Rezaee, was the invited guest at the inaugural ceremony of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Rezaee, a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is wanted in Argentina for allegedly orchestrating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires.
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Ortega has long been a controversial leader and has been accused of authoritarian policies by international observers. His tenure in power saw Nicaragua hit with multiple US sanctions, while the State Department criticized his support for “radical regimes” in Cuba and Iran as well as repeated attempts to undermine capitalism and US interests.
There is also evidence that Iran extended its influence as far north as Mexico. Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union and receives military training, weapons and financial support from Iran, has had a foothold in Latin America for much of the past decade. and more recently broke into the drug cartels. in Mexico.
The Justice Department announced last month that the United States had extradited Adalberto Fructuoso Comparan-Rodriguez, former mayor of Aguililla, Mexico and alleged leader of the United Cartels in Michoacán, Mexico, for drug trafficking.
According to the allegations, Comparan-Rodriguez met in Cali, Colombia, with a drug trafficker suspected of being associated with Hezbollah. Comparan-Rodriguez and an associate told the trafficker they could supply hundreds of kilograms of methamphetamine, eventually agreeing to send 500 kilograms of methamphetamine from Mexico to Texas, where they were then transported to Miami.
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Law enforcement was able to seize the drugs before they hit the streets after Comparan-Rodriguez was arrested by Guatemalan authorities, but the case demonstrated Hezbollah’s growing influence in Latin America.
Hezbollah has a long documented history of operations in the tri-border area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, while the organization has more recently expanded its reach into Venezuela. In 2019, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the terrorist organization now has “active cells” in Venezuela that pose a security risk to the United States.
“People don’t recognize that Hezbollah has active cells – the Iranians are impacting the people of Venezuela and all of South America,” he said at the time. “We have an obligation to reduce that risk for America.”
However, the current administration has taken a different approach to the threat from Iran, abandoning the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy in favor of an attempt to revive the era’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Obama, widely known as the Iran nuclear deal.
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Phillips said the new approach was a mistake, saying the Biden administration had become soft on Iran in an effort to salvage some of former President Obama’s legacy.
“The Biden administration has painted itself into a corner on Iran sanctions,” Phillips said. “He grossly underestimated the leverage he would need to extract another nuclear deal from Iran…he dropped the pedal on the maximum pressure sanctions strategy that the Trump administration had adopted .”
The smallest amount of leverage has only served to embolden Iran, which, in addition to its activities in Latin America, has accelerated its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
“Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Phillips said. “They already have enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb within weeks.”
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Phillips believes that sanctions alone are not the solution, arguing instead that the administration must demonstrate a credible threat of military force to deter Iran’s growing ambitions.
“Sanctions alone are no more going to stop Iran’s nuclear program than they stopped North Korea’s,” he said. “What would deter Iran is a credible threat of actual use of force.”