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WikiLeaks and Iran: Is Tehran Establishing Bases in Latin America? (Sick)

Gary Sick, an official in the Carter and Reagan Administrations, covers a little-known story in the WikiLeaks documents, considering the possibility of an Iranian power play in Latin America to challenge the US.

However, he --- and the American diplomats handling the cases --- avoid the sensational conclusion of Washington v. Tehran in the region.

Here are two recent WikiLeaks releases that deal with Iran. The first  is from January 2009 and is a round-robin telegram from the State Department to many U.S. embassies asking them to keep their eyes peeled for any information about Iran’s possible courting of Latin American countries and/or possible establishment of terrorist bases there. The second describes a suspected delivery of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to Venezuela via Turkey in March of the same year. 

Cold warriors will recall that President Reagan remarked in the mid-1960s that the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was “only two days’ drive from Harlingen,” Texas. So the threat of an invasion from the south is not new. Are these latest cables evidence that Iran is getting ready to establish bases for an attack on the United States or to open a competition with the United States for influence in the Western Hemisphere?

Answer: no.

Iran is certainly anxious to pick up friends wherever it can in these days of international opprobrium and sanctions. The fact is that Iran and its rambunctious international messenger, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have succeeded in attracting a lot of attention everywhere, but to their regret they have not found much responsiveness in foreign capitals.

There are exceptions. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has embraced Ahmadinejad as a genuine soul brother, a fellow populist who regards the United States as the seat of all evil in the world. Other countries like the looks of Iran’s money. North Korea is one, but some others may include Nicaragua, where Ahmadinejad made some extravagant promises to build a port and other projects. Finally, there are those who sympathize with Iran on a particular issue. Brazil believes that Iran does indeed have the right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium to the level required for peaceful energy and scientific purposes.

But Iran’s record to date is extremely mixed. Iran used to have good relations with Russia and China, who could block U.S. initiatives in the Security Council. But those are mostly gone, due in part to Iran’s own behavior and in part to the persistent inducements of U.S. diplomacy.

Iran and North Korea seem to have a mutually rewarding relationship in arms and technology. However, it appears to be a marriage of desperation between two states very close to the bottom of the international scale of friends and influence.

Unlike North Korea, Iran has wealth from its oil revenues and a relatively diverse and entrepreneurial economy. A succession of Iranian leaders beginning long before Ahmadinejad attempted to parlay the country’s strengths into advantageous economic and political relationships. But most of these have been costly experiments that produced little of enduring benefit to either party.

In 2009, a team of Wall Street Journal reporters decided to do some ground level examination of the development projects announced with such fanfare by President Ahmadinejad during his foreign visits. An Iranian delegation inspecting the proposed site of a new port in Nicaragua was physically driven away by the locals, never to return. In fact, of the $1 billion in projects announced by Ahmadinejad, only one, a $1.5 million hospital, had broken ground.

Even in Venezuela, where there has been a true bonding of leaders at the top, the productivity of the relationship has been modest in the extreme. A bicycle plant, darkly rumored by some U.S. commentators to be involved in nefarious activities, proved to be nothing but a bicycle factory. When visited by the WSJ reporters, it was not even making many bicycles since the promised parts from Iran had failed to arrive. A bank, which some American critics suspected was being used to finance terrorism or to evade U.S. sanctions, proved instead to be an apparent victim of the sanctions and was sitting mostly empty due to a severe lack of capital and credit. Other projects, including an auto manufacturing plant, were basically showcase projects in which Iran provided the financing but which could never realistically hope to become self-sustaining, let alone turn a profit.

There is a small cottage industry devoted to raising the alarm of Iranian and Hezbollah penetration of the Western Hemisphere and potentially using bases of operations in countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua to conduct terrorist attacks on the United States. See, for example, the reporting of Douglas Farah in Counterterrorism Blog. These charges are based almost entirely on the rhetoric and propaganda surrounding Ahmadinejad’s provocative visits to Latin America. They also play well in certain sectors of Capitol Hill. Presumably that is the reason Secretary of State Clinton in January 2009 issued a highly detailed request for information of any sort about Iran’s activities south of our borders.

Regrettably, we have only the request for information. In itself, it suggests that the U.S. government has little or no information on the subject. It would be much more interesting to see the answers to this extensive and quite imaginative set of questions. Did our embassies in Central and South America respond with a flood of information confirming that Iran is becoming a major threat to U.S. interests in this hemisphere? Or were the answers from the field more like the results of the WSJ investigation, that it was more hype than reality? Or were there no answers at all? Like many of the other WikiLeaks revelations, we only see the beginning of the story, not the full picture.

The second cable is in the area of fact, not fiction. Iran was suspected of preparing a shipment of UAVs to Venezuela via Turkey. The United States was alerting Turkey to this possibility and asking them to intercept the shipment. This was an appropriate and timely use of intelligence. And the request to thwart the shipment was entirely consistent with United Nations Security Council resolutions prohibiting Iran from exporting weapons. From this cable we do not know if Turkey complied, but based on a previous case there is every reason to believe that Turkey would be cooperative.

Both of these cables are examples of the day-to-day work of diplomacy. The first cable, in particular, is an excellent example of the use of diplomatic resources to verify (or more likely disprove) some of the more extreme allegations of the “Iranian threat” in Latin America by actually getting facts on the ground.

More power to them!

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