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US Senators Warn Latin America on Iran Ties

By Michael Bowman, VOA, Capitol Hill

U.S. senators are warning Latin American nations against deepening financial and military ties with Iran, pledging heightened U.S. vigilance of Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere. The Senate's Foreign Relations Subcommittee took a close look Thursday at Tehran’s dealings with Latin America.

From left: President Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
(Inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in Managua on January 10, 2012)

Iran’s increasingly isolated regime retains friends in Latin America, most notably Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

U.S. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez had a stern message for the region.

“Unfortunately, there are some countries in this hemisphere that, for political or financial gain, have courted Iranian overtures. They proceed at their own risk: the risk of sanctions from the United States, and the risk of abetting a terrorist state,” he said.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio echoed that message. “The leaders of these [Latin American] countries are playing with fire,” Rubio said.

Researcher Douglas Farah said Iran's intentions in Latin America are twofold. “To develop the capacity and capability to wreak havoc in Latin America and possibly the U.S. homeland, if the Iranian leadership views this as necessary to the survival of its nuclear program, and to develop and expand the ability to blunt international sanctions that are crippling the regime’s economic life,” Farah said.

Of particular concern: Iran’s quest for raw nuclear materials and what U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper recently described as Iran’s increasing willingness to mount attacks on U.S. soil.

Former U.S. Ambassador Roger Noriega said, “Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are conspiring to wage an asymmetrical struggle against U.S. security, and to abet Iran’s illicit nuclear program.”

Noreiga noted that President Chavez has been stricken with cancer, and urged strong U.S. engagement with Venezuela in any post-Chavez era.

Iranian influence is but one of many topics requiring U.S. attention in Latin America, according to Latin America expert Cynthia Arnson, who had a recommendation for senators.

“That we not allow this issue [Iranian influence] to overshadow attention to the broader dynamics in the hemisphere, which are marked by economic growth, the fight against poverty and inequality, the emergence of Brazil,” Arnson said.

But Iranian plots in the hemisphere span decades and merit U.S. attention, according to Senator Rubio.

“Let us remember that it was senior Iranian officials that were linked to the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 30 people, a 1994 bombing at the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association that killed 85 people. In October, we uncovered a plot by the Quds Force to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in the United States - in this very city,” Rubio said.

During a visit to Caracas last month, President Ahmadinejad described U.S. concern about Iran’s engagement with Latin America as "laughable." President Chavez said it is the United States -- not Iran -- that is a true threat to international security.

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