Menendez warns of Iran’s outreach to Latin America

Menendez warns of Iran’s outreach to Latin America

Experts see warming ties as Tehran seeks relief from sanctions

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) offered a stern warning to Latin American leaders as he chaired a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee hearing on the Iranian government’s activities in the Western hemisphere.

Menendez said Iran has opened six new embassies in Latin America as it searches for allies to combat increasingly harsh economic sanctions meant to forestall its nuclear program. Such outposts could serve as launching pads for terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies, he and expert witnesses said during the Feb. 17 hearing in Washington.

“As we tighten the noose around the Iranian regime, we must pay close attention to where President Ahmadinejad’s increasingly isolated government looks for friends and resources,” Menendez said.

He spoke of a New York Times investigation into the Lebanese Canadian Bank, which showed “a complicated web of high-ranking Hizbullah officials involved in the South American cocaine trafficking trade, as well as an extensive network of money laundering for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels.”

Joining Menendez at the hearing was his fellow Cuban-American colleague in the Senate, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“Let’s remember there are senior Iranian officials who were linked to the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 30 people and the 1994 bombing at the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) that killed 85 people,” said Rubio, who is often mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket.

“There is a track record,” agreed the panel’s first witness, Cynthia Arnson, referring to the embassy and AMIA bomb attacks.

Arnson is director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, DC, think tank.

Noting “this is a political year in the United States,” Arnson said, “It is easy to see how hot-button issues such as Iran and its intentions in the Middle East and Latin America can become the subject of heated debate and partisan contention.”

During a question-and-answer period, Menendez disagreed with her assertion that some analysts “do not take the Obama administration seriously” on Iran.

“From my own perspective, I do believe the Obama administration has actually engaged in more sanctioning activities and enforcement of sanctions activities than ever before,” said Menendez, who in the past has been critical of the president’s dealings with Israel and Iran. He said he thinks members of the Obama administration are “fully engaged and understand the nature of the threat.”

Part of that threat could be terrorist plots hatched by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his closest ally in Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said Roger Noriega, who served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush.

Ahmadinejad and Chavez “are conspiring to wage an asymmetrical struggle against U.S. security and to abet Iran’s nuclear program,” Noriega said.

Noriega, currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told the two senators both the Bush and Obama administrations have been “slow to respond to this multidimensional threat.”

Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, was also troubled by the close ties between the Iranian and Venezuelan leaders.

Iran’s relationship with Venezuela “has gone from zero to 60 overnight in foreign policy,” Berman said, helping Iran skirt sanctions and abetting its support of Hizbullah. “Iran sees the Western Hemisphere as a strategic theater where it can expand its own influence.”

A day after the hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and officials of the European Union indicated that Iran is showing a new willingness to negotiate the future of its nuclear development program. But the prospect of renewed talks was greeted with skepticism by Menendez and 11 other senators.

In a Feb. 18 letter to President Obama, the signatories — six Democrats, five Republicans, and one independent — said they “remain extremely concerned that the Iranian government will seek to buy time or otherwise dilute the focus of our diplomacy…. Such tactical maneuverings are a dangerous distraction and should not be tolerated,” their letter warned the president. “We would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities.”

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