The headlines about Iran for the past several months have clearly shown that Iran represents the greatest danger to the world today – the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran's nuclear weapons project, the violent sacking of the British embassy in Tehran, the belligerent statements threatening a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz.
Most in the international community have recognized this, and they are acting accordingly. Not so among a small number of nations in Latin America, who will be welcoming Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with open arms this week as he embarks on his fifth visit to the region.
It seems whenever Ahmadinejad needs to create an appearance of legitimacy, he turns to "friends" in Latin America for help.
Today more than ever, Ahmadinejad is desperate for acceptability. At a time when the U.S. and Europe are expanding and strengthening sanctions against Iran leading to that country's increasing isolation, Ahmadinejad naturally looks to Iran's most reliable enablers in Latin America for help.
Iran has pursued opportunities in Latin America for more than two decades. Iran's planning and implementation in the early 1990s of the terrorist attacks against the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires (AMIA), and its use of its surrogate, the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, in those destructive operations signaled that Iran believed it had a certain freedom to carry out terrorist attacks on Latin American territory.
Since then, Iran has been able to spread its influence on the continent in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua with leaders and parties who are unfriendly to the United States.
Knowing what we know today of Iranian intentions, nobody can seriously say they believe Iran's behavior is benign. Efforts to blame the U.S., Israel, and Britain expectedly continue but have no credibility.
Ahmadinejad's government represses its own people, abandoning any pretense of respecting the voice of its citizens, and has even been publicly criticized by some of Iran's fairly conservative clerics. Almost everywhere, except in certain countries in Latin America, Iran has lost legitimacy and can't successfully conjure up the usual enemies to divert attention from its abuses.
Iran has used its expanding economic relations in the region. This has translated into economic deals because of a key factor at work, Iran's oil wealth.
Had Iran simply looked for allies based on "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," that would have been one thing. But Iran has cut a series of deals in the region that make tangible its influence. It is now the second-largest investor in Venezuela, has set up a joint bank with Venezuela to finance their projects such as development of Venezuelan oil deposits, funding for housing projects for the poor and is reported to be engaged in covert industrial development for military purposes.
In Bolivia, Iran has a cooperative arrangement worth more than $1 billion to develop Bolivia's oil, gas, and industrial sectors. It has set up health clinics and training programs for physicians. In Ecuador, Iran has signed a series of economic agreements including one for energy production. In Nicaragua, Iran has promised millions in aid toward building a dam and a hydroelectric power station, and donated $2 million for the construction of a hospital.
In these projects, the Iranians are following the prescription that Islamic extremist groups have been using for years to extend their influence in Middle Eastern countries: build a reputation for social responsibility by providing services, particularly to the needy. Hezbollah and Hamas have mastered this technique in an effort to win public support and mask their extremist goals.
Iran was looking for political support from these and other Latin American countries at a time when the U.S. and Europe were trying to isolate Iran over the nuclear issue. Building hospitals and housing for the poor, in addition to the large business investments, clearly was intended to reinforce support from the bottom up. And now Iran has launched a Spanish-language television channel to broadcast directly to Spanish-speaking countries.
All of which is intended to serve the radical goals of the regime that finds itself being cut off from so much of the world. Included in these goals are the spread of Iran's Islamic extremist ideology, the building of a political alliance to offset international pressures, and sustaining a network of agents through Hezbollah to be able to engage in terrorism in Latin America should the perceived need arise.
Now that the mask is completely off Iran, it is time for the rest of Latin America to join with responsible members of the international community to pressure—through publicity and diplomatic, financial, and resource actions—not only against the regime's nuclear program but its Latin American agenda. A regime that so blatantly defies the will of the international community by persistently ignoring its obligations to cease developing nuclear weapons cannot be trusted on the international scene.
Maybe a united outrage from other countries in Latin America will make the leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua pause before engaging with this illegitimate regime. Maybe they will realize that the future wellbeing of the people of Latin America cannot be secured by the connection to the vicious extremists in charge in Tehran.