Senate Probes Growing Iran ties with Latin America

Washington, Feb. 17 - Iran’s expanding economic and military ties with Latin America are worrisome for United States’ security strategy and for the fate of sanctions against the country, experts told a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday.

Iran aims “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,” analyst Doug Farah told senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Narcotics Affairs.

Iran has been under the brunt of punishing international sanctions for its suspected efforts to build a nuclear weapon and has reached out to Latin American countries like Venezuela and Bolivia as its international isolation grows.

Other panelists were equally adamant about growing Iranian efforts - often covert - in the continent.

“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,” former U.S. Ambassador Roger Noriega said.

Noriega held a conference call with The Israel Project Wednesday to preview his testimony on the subject.

Farah said that the expansion of flights that shuttle operatives between Tehran, Damascus, Caracas and now Bolivia demonstrated the shadowy expansion of cooperation between states.

“There’s a whole pipeline available to them as they plug in,” he said.

Iran expert Ilan Berman, who was also testifying to the Senate panel, noted that Iran has built tractor and car factories in Latin American countries where they can disguise items being produced to aid its military and even nuclear efforts.

Berman said Iran “can have virtually anything” it wants by building and operation tractor and car plants.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the chairman and ranking member of the committee, respectively, both said Iran’s growing influence in the Western Hemisphere reinforced their convictions.

“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,” Menendez said.

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

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