What's Iran up to in Latin America? Alleged assassination plot deepens concerns.

Iran's ties to Latin American leaders have been growing in recent years, but the alleged assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the US is drawing attention to its less savory activities.

Vahid Salemi/AP/File
In this Oct. 19, 2010 file photo, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, welcomes his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez, during an official welcoming ceremony, in Tehran, Iran.

The alleged plot by Iranian agents to hire a Mexican drug trafficker to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US has reignited the debate over Iran's intentions in Latin America.

Iran has cozied up to several Latin American leaders in recent years as it inks projects to expand trade – and influence – in America's back yard. Many dismiss this as nothing but politics: perhaps a concern, but not a threat.

Others voice outright fear that Hezbollah and supporters in Iran seek to attack US and Israeli interests with the help of drug cartels south of the border. The news of the alleged assassination plot by two agents tied to Iran is already raising the volume on this view.

“It is going to stir up a lot of interesting questions about Iranian connections in the Western Hemisphere,” says Ray Walser, an expert on Latin America at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the foiled 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."

Ahmadinejad, Chávez and their 'new world order'

While Iran has been expanding its presence with many countries in recent years, its his ties with Venezuela's anti-American socialist firebrand President Hugo Chávez that raise the most concern.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in fact, was supposed to visit President Chávez this September, days after emptying the United Nations chamber for raising questions over the events of 9/11. The trip was canceled at the last minute, but it would have been one of several reciprocal state visits over the past few years.

Last year, Chávez, on a worldwide tour that took him to Tehran, stood with President Ahmadinejad telling reporters they were committed to forming a “new world order. ”

Iran has found allies too in the ALBA countries – those aligned with Venezuela, such as Bolivia and Nicaragua, in an alternative trade alliance. Perhaps most irksome to the US was the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s openness to Tehran. During his administration he hosted Ahmadinejad, visited him, and supported Iran’s bid for a peaceful nuclear program.

Iran isolated? Not in Latin America.

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, sees the bigger Iranian footprint in Latin America as an effort to make new political friends, as the globe questions its nuclear intentions.

“If you are getting support from Latin America, it reduces your isolation,” says Mr. Farnsworth. “It allows you to say with some justification that the whole world isn’t against you.”

But others say the intentions are more sinister. The Jewish community in the hemisphere, for example, has long voiced concern over Iran’s capabilities.

Claudio Epelman of the Latin American Jewish Congress told The Jerusalem Post:

"In Argentina we have learned of the seriousness of the Iranian threat," said [Mr. Epelman]. "First, in 1992, an attack destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and took the lives of 29 people. Two years later, a car bomb blew up the Jewish Community Center, AMIA, killing another 85 people. For this latest attack, the Argentinean Justice, with Interpol's support, has ordered the arrest of seven former Iranian officials and a Lebanese member of Hezbollah, accused of being the masterminds of the terrorist attack. However, the Iranian government has consistently refused to cooperate and even protected the accused."

In Mexico, many say the connection to Iran and drug trafficking is being overblown – that even if they sought the help of drug traffickers here, those very drug traffickers are unlikely to bite (in this case one of the accused agents inadvertently sought the help of a DEA informant). The plotters could just as easily have paid off a thug in urban America, they argue.

But the foiled plot is definitely one more piece of evidence for those who see Iran as a real and immediate threat in this part of the world.

Roger Noriega, who wrote the recent paper “The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America” for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, took the opportunity yesterday to outline the key points of that paper in a blog:

1. With Iran’s direct support, at least two parallel yet collaborative terrorist networks are growing at an alarming rate in Latin America. One is operated by Hezbollah and aided by its collaborators in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and the other is managed by the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

2. These terrorist networks are sharing their terrorist experiences and techniques with Mexican drug cartels along the U.S. border and have established deep relations with other transnational criminal organizations.

3. These two networks encompass more than eighty operatives in at least twelve countries throughout the region (with the greatest areas of focus being Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile).

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