Iran’s Hand In Latin America Not As US Feared
By Dialogo July 15, 2009The United States may have overestimated Iran's influence in Latin America, described for months as worrisome by Obama administration officials, lawmakers and experts, the State Department said. The agency's spokesman Ian Kelly had to refute his own boss, Hillary Clinton, after The Washington Post revealed Iran was not building a major beachhead in Nicaragua, despite the US diplomatic chief's assertions otherwise. "The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua," Secretary of State Clinton said in May. "And you can only imagine what that's for," she added, calling the effort "quite disturbing." But on Monday, Kelly recognized that "right now, there is no major Iranian presence in Nicaragua." Not only does the worksite not exist, but Iran's promised investment in the impoverished Central American nation, declared during heavily publicized meetings between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Nicaraguan counterpart Daniel Ortega, also never materialized. One US diplomat in Managua went so far as to tell the Post that "there is no huge Iranian Embassy being built, as far as we can tell." Kelly said he was unaware of the source behind Clinton's statements. But another State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said her assertions came from an unidentified "foreign counterpart." Iran's influence in America's backyard has long been cited as a concern in Washington, especially regarding links between Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a firebrand leftist leader who has often been in the crosshairs of the United States. Some think-tanks in Washington have made allegations about Iran's planned "mega-embassy" in Managua. In March 2008, Michael Rubin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute pointed to "Iran's global ambition," citing interests in Latin America and Africa. "Iran's embassy in Managua is now the largest diplomatic mission in the city," he wrote in an essay. Citing Western counterterrorism officials, the Los Angeles Times in August spoke of Tehran-financed training camps for the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January denounced Iran's "subversive activity" in Latin America. Citing a secret Israeli government report, Tel Aviv-based Haaretz said in May that Venezuela and Bolivia, led by President Evo Morales -- another US foe -- was providing uranium to Iran for its controversial nuclear program. "It's very concerning," Republican Representative Connie Mack of Florida told reporters last month. Iran's involvement in Latin America, he said, had been a major topic of a spring meeting between Clinton and other lawmakers. US officials said privately they were concerned that the allegations could lack little real world evidence. But Eliot Engel, a congressman of the majority Democratic Party who chairs a subcommittee dealing with Latin American affairs in the House of Representatives, warned the threat was real. He told AFP he was "relieved" that Iran may not be building a huge embassy compound in Managua. However, he added: "I remain deeply concerned about the lax screening of Iranian travelers to Nicaragua, the flights from Tehran to Caracas for which the passenger and cargo manifests are secret and the many reports of Hezbollah fundraising in South America."