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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.

By Staff Writer / January 7, 2013

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (l.) is welcomed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at Miraflores Palace in Caracas in January 2012. Iran has bolstered its relationship with leaders in Latin America in recent years, perhaps most worrisome has been the blossoming friendship between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Chávez.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters/File

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Mexico City

When the US government signed into law the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, the United States was quickly criticized for being stuck in the past. 

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The law was the White House’s most public strategy to date to counter Iran’s influence in the Americas, and gives the State Department 180 days to draw up a plan to “address Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity.” The US received prompt criticism from Iran who said the US “still lives in the cold-war era and considers Latin America as its backyard.”

“It is an overt intervention in Latin America[n] affairs,” said Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, quoted in Al Jazeera.

Iran is increasingly isolated as it forges ahead with a nuclear program that has raised alarm across the globe. Iran says its nuclear development is for civilian purposes, like energy, while many international observers believe it is working toward creating a nuclear weapon. In the same time period, Iran’s growing influence in Latin America, especially within Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, has generated suspicion among those who worry that, at worst, Lebanon-based Hezbollah and supporters in Iran seek to attack the US from south of the American border. Many have called on the US to prioritize this new international threat.

But Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University in New York, does see some parallels with the 1950s, when many American politicians saw a “communist under every bed,” he says. “Now they see an Iranian under every bed.”

Mr. Sick says the signing of the act does not mean that the US has ramped up its view of Iran’s capabilities in Latin America, but that, as in the cold war, to vote “against security” is politically untenable.

“I don’t think the Obama administration is lying awake at night worrying if Iranians are going to attack from the south. But how can you possibly vote against increased alertness to our south?” Sick says.

The new law, which was passed by lawmakers in Washington late last year, calls upon the US to create a “comprehensive government-wide strategy to counter Iran's growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere by working together with United States allies and partners in the region,” according to the bill.

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