The fallout from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador last month continues to reverberate loudly in Washington, and could mark what some think is the beginning of a geopolitical tidal shift in the military-industrial complex.
“The Iranian regime has formed alliances with Chávez, Ortega, Castro, and Correa that many believe can destabilize the Hemisphere,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, during a Feb. 2 hearing on Iran’s growing influence in Latin America. “These alliances can pose an immediate threat by giving Iran—(the Revolutionary Guards) or its proxies like Hezbollah—a platform in the region to carry out attacks against the United States, our interests, and allies.”
Ros-Lehtinen said Hezbollah’s alleged use of hemispheric drug cartels and criminal networks to raise funds and carry out operations in Latin America represents “a clear and present danger” to the United States.
“The synergy between Hezbollah and the drug cartels in Latin America makes for a very powerful enemy and one that is challenging to identify,” the congresswoman said during last week’s House Committee hearing.
The jumbled and overlapping claims of new and emerging terrorist threats in Latin America have even found some confused echo on the U.S. campaign trail, where Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has accused Nicaragua and Venezuela of supporting radical Islam and forming part of “growing network of folks working with jihadists.”
Ros-Lehtinen, who accuses Iran of financing ALBA’s military school in Bolivia, thinks both the Islamic government and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas deserve equally tough treatment and isolation from the Obama administration.
“The (Obama) administration’s policy of dialogue with Iran has failed and a similar approach towards the ALBA countries in the region will fail as well,” she said.
Meanwhile, the ALBA countries, which held a summit last weekend in Venezuela, demonstrated their ability to self-marginalize by siding with the Syrian regime and denouncing U.S. and European aggression to destabilize that country. The eight-member group, including Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda, also agreed to create their own regional bank and use their own invented money, the Sucre.
Setting the stage for a new theater?
The recent and repeated Republican warnings about the Iranian threat in Latin America coincides with the U.S. troop pullout from Iraq and the expected withdraw from Afghanistan. The dramatic military drawdown after a decade of fighting a two-front war in the Middle East means there is a bloated military-billion defense industry that needs to find a new mission and new work for itself after the final Iraqi and Afghan contracts are doled out.
With drug-war violence, gangs, political instability and citizen insecurity rampant throughout Mexico and most of Latin America, the Western Hemisphere might have all the ingredients the military-industrial complex—both public and private—needs to retool its mission and head back out into the field.
Add a dash of Iranian mischief and Hezbollah intrigue, and defense contractors might have the selling points they need to secure another allotment of lucrative contracts in this hemisphere, says Latin America analyst Samuel Logan, director of the Southern Pulse research and analysis firm.
“The military-industrial complex that has been in Iraq for the past decade is going to be looking for the next theater to make the argument for slush money and defense contracts,” Logan told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a phone interview. “These guys could be hot to trot on Latin America for the next five to 10 years.”
While Logan says most of the claims being made right now in Washington are “hot air during an election year” and “still in the realm of conjecture,” he says it’s neatly setting the stage for Latin America to provide continued work for the some 2,000 private military contractors and security firms that have popped up over the past decade.
“The rub,” Logan says, “is that these firms don’t know anything about Latin America. But they do know terrorism and Hezbollah.”
Logan thinks that might explain some of the recent buzz about Hezbollah, jihadists and Islamic fundamentalists in Latin America; military contractors are bringing their work home with them from the Middle East, and they’re trying to convince the U.S. government they are ready for the next job down South.
For defense and security contractors, the probability of the scenario that’s being laid out is not as important as the possibility that it could exist.
How serious is the saber rattling?
Despite the increased rhetoric on Capitol Hill, there’s still disagreement in Washington over how serious the threat of Iran is in Latin America.
Adam Isacson, director of the Regional Security Policy Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), thinks the huffing and puffing in Washington is still mostly political posturing by President Barack Obama’s political opponents, and not a “mainstream” concern.
Isacson says there is every indication that the U.S. intelligence community has been “hyper-vigilant” about any actions in the region by Iran, Hezbollah or similar groups that could be a threat to U.S. security.
“Intelligence resources in the hemisphere, and especially at the border, have grown enormously,” Isacson says. “Yet neither the intelligence community nor U.S. Southern Command has ever sounded the alarm about such activity in the hemisphere. Instead, when asked about it in congressional hearings during both the Bush and Obama administrations, they’ve usually played it down.”
Isacson says Republican legislators, “Haven’t really made the case why Iran and Islamist terrorism should be higher on our list of concerns than the Zetas, Sinaloa, maras, BACRIM, FARC, or other groups that are already killing tens of thousands of people in Latin America every year.”
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, says he too thinks there is “a lot of unsubstantiated hype about the allegedly deepening links between the drug trade and other illicit activities and Iran-supported terrorist operations in the Americas.”
“The fact is that there is a lot of speculation on this subject,” says Shifter, who was one of the witnesses called before the House Committee hearing last week. “Although it is hard to say with any confidence, there seems to be a push among some hard-line sectors in Washington to protect well-established bureaucratic interests and to justify more money to fight what they claim are increasing threats in the U.S.’s ‘backyard’.”
As for Nicaragua, while the Republicans’ concerns about anti-democratic behavior and ignoble ties to dodgy international groups can’t be helping the Sandinista government’s precarious standing, so far risk analysts say it’s not hurting the country’s image more than normal.
“With regards to Nicaragua, the Iran issue would just feed in to wider investor concerns over the direction of Ortega’s presidency and the erosion of democratic values. As a stand-alone issue it’s not going to be enough to dissuade investors, especially those with an existing knowledge of the region,” says Daniel Sachs, Latin American analyst at Control Risks, an international risk consultancy group. “I think there is the general understanding among foreign companies with a foot-print in the region that there is a divorce between Ortega’s rhetoric and actions and this extends to the relationship with Iran.
He adds, “They appreciate that Ortega will not do anything too underhanded to risk U.S. retaliation, either in terms of trade or aid. The relationship with the U.S. is ultimately too important.”