Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Ben Cohen

Iran isn't giving up on Latin America


Recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif embarked on a five-nation tour of Latin America to spread the message that Tehran’s global influence is on the up.

Zarif is one of those Iranian leaders eagerly embraced as a “moderate” by the Obama Administration. Like other Iranian officials of his rank, Zarif’s room for maneuver is strictly regulated by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. Still, the notion that he represents a genuinely reformist faction within the Islamic Republic has been a convenient and comforting tool for persuading a skeptical public that Tehran will abide by its international commitments.

Without a leading outside power to put a brake on his activities, or even point out the appalling destruction wreaked by Iran and its allies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, Zarif has no reason to delay his charm offensive. As he sees it, the world is finally ready to accept that Iran is, firstly, a pillar of the new, multilateral global order, and secondly, that Iran is a viable commercial partner now that sanctions have essentially been lifted.

Speaking before his plane landed in Cuba, the first stop on a tour that also takes in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela, Zarif emphasized the importance of the 60 executives from the Iranian “private sector” who were accompanying him.

Absent from that description of the trip’s purpose is the one element for which Iran is renowned in Latin America—the spread of terrorism and of terror-supporting ideologies. Zarif hinted at these links when he praised the Cuban people—by which he means the Communist regime still in power—for resisting the “atrocities” leveled by the U.S. “empire.” For his part, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez praised Iran for the “success of its foreign policy” and reiterated the Communist government’s support for “all countries to develop nuclear energy with pacific ends.”

Not everyone in Washington, D.C., has followed these developments with indifference. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, told the Washington Free Beacon that the timing of Zarif’s visit “is significant as Iran could use many of these rogue regimes to circumvent remaining sanctions, undermine U.S. interests, and expand the drug trafficking network that helps finance its illicit activities. Tehran’s classic playbook is to use cultural centers, new embassies or consulates, or cooperative agreements on various areas to act as façades aimed at expanding Iran’s radical extremist network.”

It’s not as if we don’t already know the havoc and suffering that same network is capable of inflicting. Iran, after all, was responsible for the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, killing 85 people and wounding hundreds more—just two years after a similar attack on the Israeli embassy in the same city.

It’s worth noting that Argentina is not among the countries that Zarif is visiting, and it’s doubtful he would be welcome there. For more than 20 years, the AMIA case has remained unresolved and not a single Iranian identified by Interpol as involved with the atrocity has been arrested. In fact, for the last two years, that investigation has been diverted as a result of the likely murder of Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor in charge of the case, in January 2015. Nisman was found dead in his apartment just hours before he was due to launch a report charging that the government of former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner colluded with the Iranians to shield those responsible for the AMIA bombing.

Kirchner was defeated in last year’s election by the centrist Mauricio Macri, a former mayor of Buenos Aires. Under Macri’s government, the wheels of Argentine justice have slowly started to turn again, and that’s not good news for the Iranians. The Argentine judiciary, amid persistent rumors that Kirchner ordered Nisman’s assassination, is once more examining both the circumstances of the AMIA bombing as well as Nisman’s accusations against Kirchner.

Any investigation will inevitably lead back to Tehran, into the highest echelons of the Iranian regime. But Argentina won’t be able to secure the extradition of the AMIA suspects without international support.

In the meantime, Iran will continue to back Latin American governments out of favor with their own citizens. Zarif’s presence in Venezuela is a clear signal that Iran is intent on maintaining a mini-empire of its own, despite Tehran’s protestations about American meddling. Its current leader, Nicolas Maduro’s policies have brought Venezuela to its knees. Hunger is rampant, crime has reached record levels and hospitals have run out of basic medicines.

Indeed, one look at the sorry state of Venezuela—once the richest Latin American country, with huge oil reserves—should be enough to persuade the most skeptical observer that an alliance with Iran is part of a package that also includes economic ruin and political repression. But until we take the necessary steps in Latin America, and in other regions vulnerable to Iranian influence, the mullahs have no incentive to pull back.


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