On March 12, Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of the United States Southern Command, alerted the Senate Armed Services committee to the growing threat posed by Iran. According to his statement, the Islamic Republic has “established more than 80 ‘cultural centers’” in Central and South America and the Caribbean — “a region with an extremely small Muslim population.” The scare quotes signal that Kelly has seen right through the cultural façade to Iran’s real project: terrorism sponsorship.
To close observers, Kelly’s conspiracy theory will have a familiar ring. Conservatives have been warning us about the Iranian subversion of Latin America for years.
At a 2009 Congressional hearing, Norman A. Bailey — a veteran of Ronald Reagan’s national security affairs — painted a grim picture of Iran’s “penetration into the Western Hemisphere through Venezuela.” Not only had the Iranians commandeered Venezuelan tractor and bicycle factories to store drugs, weapons “and other items useful to them and their terrorist clients,” they had even “opened a ‘maintenance’ facility in Honduras for the ‘tractors’ produced in Venezuela.”
As if this weren’t enough, they had also established embassies in a smattering of Latin American nations.
Writing in Foreign Policy in 2010, the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Noriega — whose career highlights include involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal — gave a hallucinatory account of Hugo Chávez’s pursuit of a covert nuclear weapons program in connivance with Tehran.
That same year, U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) sounded the alarm about a rise in Farsi tattoos among imprisoned gang members in the southwestern United States, “impl[ying] a Persian influence that can likely be traced back to Iran and its proxy army, Hezbollah.” The tattoos practically confirmed collaboration between drug cartels and the Party of God, with the latter rumored to be instructing its partners in crime in the subtleties of cross-border tunnel construction.
As might be expected, the hysteria is not limited to Americans. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon once warned of the frightening existence of commercial air travel between Latin America and Iran: “We know that there are flights from Caracas via Damascus to Tehran.” A true detective.
Culture of terror
In the latest incarnation of Iran panic, Kelly informed the Senate that the “purported purpose” of the cultural centers is to “improve Iran’s image, promote Shi’a Islam and increase Iran’s political influence.” He categorically dismissed these as pretexts, though, because “as the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran’s involvement in the region and these cultural centers is a matter for concern.”
But does the Islamic Republic really deserve first place in the state terror contest? Let’s review some of the things Iran has not recently done.
For starters, it hasn’t funneled billions of dollars annually to an apartheid state that regularly slaughters civilians. Nor has it liquidated thousands of people via drone strikes in Pakistan and other locations. And it hasn’t made a habit of assassinating another country’s nuclear scientists.
The politicians and pundits who hype the Iran-Latin America threat often point to two deadly attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, which have been loudly blamed on Iran-backed Hezbollah cells operating out of the border area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. An arsenal of non-evidence is repeatedly trotted out, but an officer in the Paraguayan special forces unit created to investigate the claims confirmed to me in 2013 that no real proof of Islamic terror cells had yet turned up — despite frequent motivational visits from American spooks.
Of course, Latin American history has seen plenty of state-sponsored terror, including the disappearance of 30,000 suspected leftists during the Argentine dirty war of 1976-83, many of whom were dropped from airplanes into the river or the ocean.
A recently published memo confirms that U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the Argentine junta the “green light” to commence the disappearances. A number of key participants in this and similar regional projects were trained at the notorious School of the Americas, then located in Panama and run by — you guessed it — not Iran.
Bringing the Iran threat home
Southcom’s warning that more than 80 of Iran’s alleged cultural centers have been established in a region with an “extremely small Muslim population” has frightened right-wing news outlets, including Breitbart.com.
Lost in all the ruckus, of course, is a question that should be obvious: Why is the U.S. allowed to militarize the globe — including Iran’s immediate neighborhood — despite the “extremely small” population of Americans in most areas?
Indeed, Iranian penetration of Southcom’s turf seems decidedly benign compared to standard U.S. operating procedures in Latin America. The Iranians have not backed coups, trained repressive national armies, destroyed farmers’ livelihoods with subsidized agricultural exports or fatally mistaken poor people for drug traffickers.
So why treat those “cultural centers” as an existential menace, especially when Kelly acknowledges that one of Iran’s hemispheric goals is “increased economic and diplomatic cooperation” — pretty normal for an isolated and maligned country?
The real purpose of the hype is to bring the Iranian threat home, justifying the increased militarization of our backyard and Iran’s in one stroke. It’s the same playbook Reagan drew on when he warned that the Sandinistas were “just two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.” Such rhetoric means more money for the defense and border fortification industries, and preemptively validates any eventual Israeli or U.S. aggression against Iran.
In the conclusion to his statement to the Senate, Kelly identifies one “sign of hope” amid all the region’s turbulence:
Colombia taught us that sustained engagement by the United States can make a real and lasting difference. We have learned these lessons. Now is the time to apply them to the region as a whole.
This is the same Colombia where joining a trade union can mean signing your own death warrant and where state security forces sometimes murder civilians and dress the corpses up as guerrillas in exchange for bonus pay and extra vacation time.
But resources and investment opportunities abound, especially now that Colombia has succumbed to the bliss of free trade agreements. And it’s easy to pretend that the country’s hefty allotment of U.S. military aid doesn’t facilitate state terror.
The U.S.-Colombia “special relationship” praised by Kelly certainly hasn’t been jeopardized by Iranian cultural meddling. But if Colombia is a sign of hope, the situation appears hopeless indeed.