Over the past year, policymakers in Washington have woken up to a new threat to U.S. security. Since October of 2011, when law enforcement agencies foiled a plot by Iran's Revolutionary Guards to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the nation's capital, U.S. officials have begun to pay attention in earnest to Iran's growing activities and influence in the Western Hemisphere.
What they have found has been deeply worrisome. The Islamic Republic, it turns out, has made serious inroads into Latin America since the mid-2000s, beginning with its vibrant strategic partnership with the regime of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. Today, Iran enjoys warm diplomatic ties not only to Venezuela, but to similarly sympathetic governments in Bolivia and Ecuador as well. It has begun to exploit the region's strategic resource wealth to fuel its nuclear program. And it is building an operational presence in the region that poses a direct danger to U.S. security.
Exactly how significant this threat is represents the subject of a new study released in late November by the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee. That report, entitled A Line In The Sand, documents the sinister synergies that have been created in recent years between Iran and Hezbollah on the one hand, and radical regional regimes and actors—from Venezuela to Mexican drug cartels—on the other. Some of these contacts, the study notes, are financial in nature, as Iran seeks to leverage Latin America's permissive political and fiscal environments to skirt sanctions and continue to engage in international commerce amid tightening Western sanctions. But these contacts could easily become operational as well. The report suggests that "the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, and the uncertainty of whether Israel might attack Iran drawing the United States into a confrontation, only heightens concern that Iran or its agents would attempt to exploit the porous Southwest border for retaliation."
The U.S. response, meanwhile, is still nascent. To date, only one piece of Congressional legislation—the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012—has seriously taken up the issue of Iran's penetration of the Americas, and the potentially adverse implications for U.S. security. Fortunately, the Act has found a receptive ear among many in Congress, and is now likely to pass the Senate with only minor modifications during the current lame duck session of Congress. Yet, in and of itself, the Act does not constitute a comprehensive strategy for competing with Iran in the Americas—or for diluting its influence there.
To the contrary, America's strategic profile in Latin America is now poised to constrict precipitously. As a result of looming defense cuts, and with the specter of additional, and ruinous, "sequester" provisions on the horizon, the Pentagon is now actively planning a more modest global profile. To that end, back in May, General Douglas Fraser, the outgoing head of U.S. Southern Command, the combatant command responsible for the Americas, told lawmakers that it plans to retract to Central America and focus predominantly on the threats posed by the region's rampant drug and arms trades. In other words, the United States is getting out of the business of competing for strategic influence in Latin America, and doing so at precisely the time that Iran is getting serious about it.
That could end up being a costly mistake. As the findings of the Homeland Security Committee's study indicate, Iran's presence south of the U.S. border represents more than a mere annoyance. It is, rather, a potential front for Iranian action against the United States—one that could well be activated if and when the current cold war between Iran and the West over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program heats up in earnest. Washington needs to be prepared should that happen.
Better yet, it needs to craft a proactive approach to confronting Iran influence and activity south of our border. That, after all, is the surest way for us to avoid having to face Iran and its proxies here at home.