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Is Iran's presence in Latin America a threat? The White House says yes.

When the White House signed a law countering Iran in Latin America recently, it was the most public strategy to date against Iran’s influence in the region.

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In Latin America that includes a “multiagency action plan” that calls for the US and partners in the region to create “a counterterrorism and counter-radicalization plan to isolate Iran.” In Mexico and Canada, specifically, the US aims to tighten border control with its counterparts with an eye toward evading an Iranian security threat.

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Iran in the Americas

Iran, under international sanctions for its nuclear program, has bolstered its relationship with leaders in Latin America in recent years. Iran has built 17 cultural centers in the region and increased its number of embassies from six in 2005 to 11 today. Perhaps most worrisome has been the blossoming friendship between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Mr. Chávez has led a regional group of anti-American leaders who have also developed stronger ties with Iran.

Many view those relations as a diplomatic effort to gain friends at a time when Iran needs legitimacy. They say that anything more sinister is unrealistic, since Iran has neither the military might nor gross domestic product to pose a substantial threat to the US.

Most of Iran's promises in Latin America in fact have been just that – promises. From factories to infrastructure deals, they have not amounted to more than paper pledges.

But Washington has expressed caution. When news emerged in October 2011 that two agents tied to Iran allegedly had attempted to hire a Mexican drug trafficker to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told The Associated Press that the plot "creates a potential for international reaction that will further isolate Iran, that will raise questions about what they're up to, not only in the United States and Mexico.”

The same page

Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the new act is a response to legitimate concerns. “As the act is really a call to formally study the issue and develop a plan to deal with any threats, it responds to a history of heightened activity in the hemisphere on the part of Iran since the mid-1990s,” Mr. Johnson says. “The legislation has been in the works for a year and comes at a time of heightened concern over Iran’s nuclear program.”

The act is an effort to put the region on the same page in viewing Iran as a potential threat, says Daniel Brumberg, an Iran specialist at the United States Institute of Peace, though he considers it symbolic since the US already has plenty “on the books to deal with this challenge,” Mr. Brumberg says. Still, “this represents, from what I can see, the first effort to encourage a more public or articulated strategy vis-à-vis Iran … and South America.”

Brumberg says the US risks backlash from leaders such as Chávez, who will “invoke the law as another example of the US trying to dictate the diplomacy of the region.” But Brumberg says the US views this kind of reaction as a small price to pay.

And, says Sick, the year 2013 looks very different than the 1950s and '60s. “If Chávez survives, then he might indeed use it as ammunition against ‘the big boy to the north.’ But my guess is that [Latin America] will see [the new law] as a pretty minor thing, too,” he says. “I don’t think it will cause much of a ripple.”

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