August 26, 2016
By Ben Cohen
Still flushed with the success, for the Iranians anyway, of the 2015 nuclear deal reached with the United States and other powers, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif this week embarked on a five-nation tour of Latin America to spread the message that Tehran’s global influence is on the up.
Zarif is one of those Iranian leaders eagerly embraced as a “moderate” by the Obama administration. As is the case with other Iranian officials of his rank, Zarif’s room for maneuver is strictly regulated by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. Still, the notion that he represents a genuinely reformist faction within the Islamic Republic has been a convenient and comforting tool for persuading a skeptical public that Tehran will abide by its international commitments. That perception has been boosted by the soothing diplomatese which Zarif typically deploys when speaking to western leaders and the western press.
Without a leading outside power to put a brake on his activities, or even point out the appalling destruction wreaked by Iran and its allies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, Zarif has no reason to delay his charm offensive. As he sees it, the world is finally ready to accept that Iran is, firstly, a pillar of the new, multilateral global order, and secondly, that Iran is a viable commercial partner now that sanctions have essentially been lifted.
Speaking before his plane landed in Cuba, the first stop on a tour that also takes in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela, Zarif emphasized the importance of the 60 executives from the Iranian “private sector” who were accompanying him. “The composition of the delegation,” Zarif informed Press TV, the regime’s English-language mouthpiece, “is indicative of the significance that both the private and the state-run sectors of the Islamic Republic of Iran attach to the enhancement of relations with Latin America.”
Absent from that description of the trip’s purpose is the one element for which Iran is renowned in Latin America – the spread of terrorism and of terror-supporting ideologies. Zarif hinted at these links when he praised the Cuban people – by which he means the Communist regime still in power – for resisting the “atrocities” leveled by the US “empire.” For his part, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez praised Iran for the “success of its foreign policy” and reiterated the Communist government’s support for “all countries to develop nuclear energy with pacific ends.”
Not everyone in Washington, DC has followed these developments with indifference. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, told the Washington Free Beacon that the timing of Zarif’s visit “is significant as Iran could use many of these rogue regimes to circumvent remaining sanctions, undermine US interests, and expand the drug trafficking network that helps finance its illicit activities. Tehran’s classic playbook is to use cultural centers, new embassies or consulates, or cooperative agreements on various areas to act as façades aimed at expanding Iran’s radical extremist network.”
It’s not as if we don’t already know the havoc and suffering that same network is capable of inflicting. Iran, after all, was responsible for the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, killing 85 people and wounding hundreds more – just two years after a similar attack on the Israeli embassy in the same city.
It’s worth noting that Argentina is not among the countries that Zarif is visiting, and it’s doubtful he would be welcome there. For more than 20 years, the AMIA case has remain unresolved and not a single Iranian identified by Interpol as involved with the atrocity has been arrested. In fact, for the last two years, that investigation has been diverted as a result of the likely murder of Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor in charge of the case, in January 2015. Nisman was found dead in his apartment with a bullet in his skull, just hours before he was due to launch a report charging that the government of former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner colluded with the Iranians to shield those responsible for the AMIA bombing.
Kirchner was defeated in last year’s election by the centrist Mauricio Macri, a former mayor of Buenos Aires. Under Macri’s government, the wheels of Argentine justice have slowly started to turn again, and that’s not good news for the Iranians. Over the last fortnight, the Argentine judiciary, amid persistent rumors that Kirchner ordered Nisman’s assassination, is once more examining both the circumstances of the AMIA bombing as well as Nisman’s accusations against Kirchner. As Eamonn MacDonagh, who has written extensively on the AMIA case, pointed out, “it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that (Judge Claudio) Bonadio and (Judge Fabiana) Palmaghini are responding to a signal of some sort from the executive branch that the government is finally interested in having both Nisman’s death and his allegations properly investigated.”
Any investigation will inevitably lead back to Tehran, into the highest echelons of the Iranian regime. But Argentina won’t be able to secure the extradition of the AMIA suspects without international support, especially given the emerging Middle Eastern alignment between Iran, Turkey and Russia. If the next American president is serious about curbing Iranian mischief, securing justice for the AMIA victims is as good a place as any to start.
In the meantime, Iran will continue to back Latin American governments out of favor with their own citizens. Zarif’s presence in Venezuela, at a time when the majority of the country’s voters are demanding a referendum on the future of its current leader, Nicolas Maduro, is a clear signal that Iran is intent on maintaining a mini-empire of its own, despite Tehran’s protestations about American meddling. Maduro’s policies, based on those of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, have brought Venezuela to its knees. Hunger is rampant, crime has reached record levels and hospitals have run out of basic medicines.
Indeed, one look at the sorry state of Venezuela — once the richest Latin American country, with huge oil reserves — should be enough to persuade the most skeptical observer that an alliance with Iran is part of a package that also includes economic ruin and political repression. But until we take the necessary steps in Latin America, and in other regions vulnerable to Iranian influence, the mullahs have no incentive to pull back.