Ties between Latin America and the Middle East have drawn renewed attention, in part spurred by the tepid reactions of Latin American leaders to the deteriorating situation in Libya. But the main concern, at least among rightwing observers, is what the American Enterprise Institute unimaginatively terms the “Mullah-Caudillo Axis.” The relationship between Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadenijad is causing extreme handwringing on the right, spurring pundits to conjure fantastical scenarios about Iran exploiting America’s “soft underbelly.” Clearly, neoconservatives haven't given up hope of attacking Iran—even if they have to go through Caracas to do it.
Charles Davis, last updated: March 13, 2011
For neoconservatives, it seems Latin America is all about Iran.
From op-eds to “Action Agendas” for the GOP-led House of Representatives, rightwing foreign policy figures are blasting the administration of President Barack Obama for not paying enough attention to the United States' southern neighbors. That purported neglect could be costly, they warn, because the Islamic Republic is allegedly strengthening ties with leaders throughout the region for one singular purpose: to better fight the United States.
Latin America's growing relationship with countries in the Middle East and North Africa has come under renewed focus as the situation in Libya deteriorates. While Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has been strongly criticized by much of the international community for his violent crackdown on rebels, the response from most of Latin America's leftist leaders has been muted, if not outright supportive, underscoring how the region's growing financial ties to countries in the Greater Middle East has influenced foreign policy agendas.
However, while Gaddafi was in recent years strongly backed by western nations—including the United States and Britain—before the past month's events made that relationship politically untenable, Iran has long been a pariah in the eyes of the West. And conveniently for those eager for a confrontation with the Islamic Republic, its growing foothold in Latin America, they say, is directly linked—and is in fact being facilitated by—another long-time enemy of the neoconservative right: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Indeed, Chávez and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, have formed a “Mullah-Caudillo Axis,” in the rather unimaginative words of the American Enterprise Institute(AEI).
Although the danger posed by the budding Iran-Venezuela relationship might not be as great as the more notorious axes of history, neoconservatives maintain the danger is real—and growing. With Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, an outspoken opponent of both countries, now chairing the House Foreign Affairs Committee, they have a reliable ally in Congress who can be expected to push their agenda.
“I believe the Venezuela-Iran alliance represents the biggest threat to regional stability since the Cold War,” warns the Hudson Institute's Jaime Daremblum in a January piece for the Weekly Standard. A former ambassador to Costa Rica during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, Daremblum’s warnings of Iranian influence in Latin America have dominated his writings over the last year. In another January piece—adapted from a speech before the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee(AIPAC)—he says Iran's outreach in Latin America is “Messianic in its goals and relentless in its tactics … [and] intimately linked to narcoterrorism, both in its own practice and in the groups and activities it sponsors.” The “key” to its expanding reach, he writes, “has been Hugo Chávez.”
In recent years, Tehran and Caracas have grown closer. In 2010, the countries announced a joint venture to ship oil from Venezuela to European and Asian markets, which is aimed at reducing Caracas' financial dependence on exports to America, part of a “strategic alliance” intended to thwart U.S. “imperialism.” The countries have partnered for other ventures in the natural gas, textiles and agricultural sectors, with trade between the two nations valued at more than $3 billion a year.
But it is not trade that is drawing the nations together and their growing ties are more than “a mere annoyance,” says Daremblum. Rather, the friendly relations between the governments of Iran and Venezuela constitute “a serious strategic menace” to the United States.
While many analysts see Iran's outreach in Latin America as more an attempt to overcome its status as an international pariah, than part of a nefarious plot to build a base from which to literally attack America, Daremblum isn't among them. He sees the country's building of embassies and diplomatic missions throughout the region as part of their long-term game plan to launch such attacks. “For these regimes,” he warns, “an embassy is a platform for terrorism.”
The concern about Iranian embassies should sound familiar.
In 2009, prominent neoconservatives like Michael Rubin drew attention to media reports claiming that Iran had built a new embassy in Nicaragua's sprawling capital Managua that was “the largest diplomatic mission in the city.” The embassy, coupled with Iran's investments in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the region, Rubin warned, indicated the Islamic Republic “might see Latin America as a beachhead from which to conduct an aggressive strategy against the United States and its allies.”
The claim was spread throughout rightwing policy circles. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton picked it up. "The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua," she warned in 2009, just a few months after taking office. "And you can only imagine what that's for."
But as the Washington Post reported in July 2009, that “huge embassy in Managua” could not be found. “It doesn't exist,” a chuckling Ernest Porta, head of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce, told the paper.
That claim might not have stuck. But as with the litany of dubious allegations they made before the invasion of Iraq, neoconservatives have thrown out plenty more in the time since.
A case in point: In a December 2010 blog post—authoritative headline: “Iran Placing Medium-Range Missiles in Venezuela; Can Reach the U.S.”—the Hudson Institute's Anna Mahjar-Barducci claimed Venezuela's Chávez had agreed to “allow Iran to establish a military base manned by Iranian missile officers, soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Venezuelan missile offers.”
As part of the purported deal, missiles—including the “Iranian Shabab 3 (range 1300-1500km)”—would be deployed, she maintained, citing a single-sourced report in a German newspaper. And, pointing to a report in the New York Times, Mahjar-Barducci wrote that Iran was also developing—not placing, as stated in the headline—a new “medium range missile” based on a Russian design that could hit the continental United States.
The head of the Pentagon's Southern Command has said it has no evidence of an Iranian military presence in Venezuela. But according to Mahjar-Barducci, Iran was indeed “establishing a strategic base in the South American continent—in the United States' soft underbelly.” And if “a missile base can be opened in Venezuela,” she gravely warned, “many U.S. cities will be able to be reached from there even with short-medium range missiles.”
Since her piece was published, no news publications have validated her claims. The New York Times, meanwhile, was forced to retract its report about Iran developing a missile based on a Russian design, a claim it had based on an erroneous interpretation of a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. And while 1,500km is indeed a long distance for a missile to go, as the missiles Iran reportedly possesses can travel, it is more than 1,800km from Venezuela to Key West, Florida.
Real or not, though, neoconservatives want their allies in the GOP-led House of Representatives to do something about the “threat” posed by Iran's ties with Latin American leaders—and to put Venezuela's Chàvez on notice, beginning with severe sanctions, if not outright labeling his country a “terrorist state,” as some hardliners in Congress wish.
“Under Washington's nose, Chávez has made strides toward terminating U.S. access to Venezuelan oil by finding a new buyer in China, provided Iran's terrorist state with a strategic platform from which to operate near US shores, and resuscitated Cuba's implacable dictatorship,” writes AEI's Roger Noriegain his “Latin America Action Agenda for the New Congress.” A former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere under George W. Bush, Noriega says Republicans in Congress should press for “indictments against Chávez's circle of corrupt cronies” and pursue strict U.S. sanctions against Venezuela's state-run oil company for “doing business with Iran.”
In an October 2010 piece for Foreign Policy magazine, Noriega even suggested Venezuela was not just aiding Iran's nuclear program—the two countries have openly discussed sharing technology and research—but was itself developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program. However, that show-stopping claim of nuclear proliferation on the U.S.'s “soft underbelly” isn't mentioned in his more recent, 2,700 word policy guide for the new Congress. According to leaked State Department cables released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats have privately mocked the notion that Venezuela is assisting Iran's nuclear program or developing atomic weapons—or even capable of developing a civilian nuclear power program.
Like the claims about Iran's phantom mega-embassy in Nicaragua, allegations of Venezuelan proliferation appear to have been unceremoniously dropped.
The notion that Venezuela is an Iranian client state might be a key neoconservative preoccupation with respect to Latin America—but it's not their only one. In a Christmas Day piece, the Washington Post editorial board attacked the Obama administration for treating “Latin America's anti-democratic left with benign neglect.”
In particular, the Post, which has been criticized for stacking its list of contributors with neoconservatives like Jennifer Rubinin recent years, faulted the administration for failing to stand up to what it termed “Nicaraguan aggression”—and to “would-be-president for life” Nicaraguan head of state and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega—by failing to strongly and openly side with Costa Rica in its land dispute with Nicaragua over the San Juan river that divides the two countries.
“It's tempting to imagine how the Reagan administration might have reacted had Mr. Ortega pulled this stunt in the mid-1980s,” the Post editorial stated, fondly alluding to a time when the U.S. government fueled a decade-long guerrilla war that cost some 50,000 lives. “Would U.S. Marines be spending Christmas in Managua?”
Beyond standing up to consistently reelected “anti-democratic” leftists in Latin America, though, the U.S. right is also concerned with doubling down on the war on drugs in Mexico and Colombia, claiming, as is their wont, that the Obama administration isn't doing enough. But even there, it all seems to come back to fighting Islamic terrorism.
“The drug cartels are expanding their reach in our countries,” writes Hudson's Daremblum, referring to Central and South America. “The proven links between the Islamic terrorists and the drug cartels significantly increase the security risks in the region.”
AEI's Noriega, meanwhile, argues that the Republican-led House of Representatives should step in and provide “additional funds, hardware, and technical support” throughout Central America to combat drug cartels. And while more than 34,000 people have been killed in Mexico alone since the drug war was ramped up there in 2006, Noriega says that's actually a sign of success—“tangible evidence that President Felipe Calderón ended the unwritten policy of past Mexican political leaders who kept the peace with 'narcos' by turning a blind eye to their criminal activities.”
The call to ramp up support for Calderón's war on drug cartels comes despite not just the increase in violence—and the indiscernible impact on supply and demand—but at a time when an increasing number of Mexico's political elite are calling for a change in policy, with former President Vicente Fox going so far as to call for legalizing the manufacture and distribution of all drugs, from marijuana to cocaine.
While not prepared to go quite that far, other former presidents from Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal in 2009 to pronounce the war on drugs a “failure” and to call for a public health-based approach to illicit narcotics, rather than the militarized approach embraced by Washington.
But to rightwing foreign policy figures, military cooperation on the war on drugs is a time-tested way Washington can maintain and strengthen ties with pro-American governments in Central and South America, and thus counter the purported threat of growing Iranian and Venezuelan influence in the region. And many neoconservatives see the war on drugs as almost indistinguishable from the war on terror. Indeed, Daremblum warns that drug cartels' “expertise could be put at the service of terrorists who want to enter the United States without being detected”—terrorists he and his ideological cohorts suggest would be armed and financed by Iran, citing the country's alleged involvement in attacks on the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s.
For years, and since the 9/11 terrorist attacks especially, neoconservatives have been itching for a military confrontation with Iran. “Real men,” after all, “go to Tehran,” as Bush administration figures who were certain to never go there themselves put it. While a preemptive attack against the notorious member of the “axis of evil” hasn't yet come to pass, neoconservatives haven't given up hope of taking on the Iranian regime—even if they have to go through Caracas to do it.
Charles Davis is an independent journalist based in Nicaragua and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org/).
Gabriel Elizondo, “Latin America's sudden silence on Gaddafi,” Al Jazeera, February 25, 2011, http://blogs.aljazeera.net/americas/2011/02/25/latin-americas-sudden-silence-gaddafi.
Jaime Daremblum, “Hemispheric Neglect,” The Weekly Standard, January 24, 2011, http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/hemispheric-neglect_536915.html.
Jaime Daremblum, “Iran and Latin America,” Hudson Institute, January 2011, http://www.hudson.org/files/publications/Iran_Latin_America_Daremblum_Jan2011.pdf.
“Iran and Venezeual deepen 'strategic alliance,'” BBC, October 21, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-11593197.
Anne-Marie O'Connor and Mary Beth Sheridan, “Iran's Invisible Nicaragua Embassy,” Washington Post, July 12, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/12/AR2009071202337.html.
Anna Mahjar-Barducci, “Iran Placing Medium-Range Missiles in Venezuela; Can Reach the U.S.,” Hudson New York, December 8, 2010, http://www.hudson-ny.org/1714/iran-missiles-in-venezuela.
Phil Stewart, "No Iran military presence in Venezuela: U.S. general,” Reuters, April 27, 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/04/27/us-venezuela-iran-usa-idUSTRE63Q45N20100427.
Mark Mazzetti and William J. Broad, “Wider Window Into Iran's Missile Capabilities Offers a Murkier View,” New York Times, December 3, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/03/world/middleeast/03wikileaks-missile.html.
Roger F. Noriega, “Chávez's Secret Nuclear Program,” Foreign Policy, October 5, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/10/05/chavez_s_secret_nuclear_program.
Rory Carroll, “WikiLeaks cables dismiss Hugo Chávez's nuclear ambitions,” The Guardian, December 9, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/09/wikileaks-cables-venezuela-chavez-nuclear.
Editorial, “Obama administration seems soft on Nicaraguan aggression,” Washington Post, December 25, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/25/AR2010122501786.html.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, César Gavira and Ernesto Zedillo, “The War on Drugs Is a Failure,” Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123535114271444981.html.
Ray Takeyh is an Iran-hawk who has recently migrated from the Council on Foreign Relations to the neoconservative Hudson Institute. Takeyh has been a vociferous critic of the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts aimed at peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear dispute, framing a potential agreement as the “most advantageous path to nuclear arms” for Iran and arguing for a “revamped coercive strategy” against the country.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, notorious for reigning in the rights of workers in his home state, has staked out hawkish positions on foreign policy in advance of his expected run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He has called for the United States to have a “strong presence” in the Middle East, has said he would not rule out U.S. “boots on the ground” in the fight against ISIS, and has said he would “absolutely” reject any nuclear deal with Iran if he becomes president. Walker has also spurred ridicule for saying the “most significant foreign policy decision” of his lifetime was Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
Stephen Hadley, a former national security advisor to President George W. Bush, has advocated a hardline towards Russia in the wake of the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Among his recommendations is for the CIA to covertly arm Ukrainian rebels. He said in November 2014: “If I were in my old job I would be thinking about lethal assistance—yes. But you know this is why you have a CIA, you know this is why you have covert action and I would be thinking—do we want to do it explicitly to send a message to Putin? Or do you want to do it covertly?”
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently published a letter signed by former officials from both the Bush and Obama administrations that has been framed as critical of the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran. However, the letter, which was also signed by prominent neoconservatives, has been described by one signatory as “very much in line with current U.S. policy.”
Gary Samore, a former adviser to the Obama administration who is now the president of the hawkish United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), recently signed onto an open letter published by the “pro-Israel” Washington Institute for Near East Policy that several media outlets have framed as a warning from President Obama’s “ex-advisers” about the “Iran nuclear deal.” Samore, however, appears to disagree with this interpretation of the letter, saying in a recent CNN interview: “If you look through the substance of the letter, you'll see that the positions we take on the key unresolved issues are very much in line with current U.S. policy.”
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