Tehran Goes Latin; Washington Now Worries Iran Is Helping Hizbullah Set Up Shop in Central and South America, but Local Governments Are Unimpressed by the Claims
Byline: Joseph Contreras
When Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, chose to visit three Latin American capitals earlier this month, there's little doubt he meant his trip to irritate the Great Satan to the north. Sure enough, it had just that effect; "Iran's track record does not suggest it wishes to play a constructive role in the hemisphere," said Eric Watnik, a U.S. State Department spokesman. But U.S. officials are worried about more than just Tehran's diplomacy these days. They fear that Iran might one day help its terrorist proxy, Hizbullah, set up shop throughout the United States' backyard. Indeed, Latin America could be emerging as a quiet new front in the war on terror. So far, however, most regional governments remain unmoved by Washington's requests that they clamp down, and the controversy could further damage some already fragile relationships.
The lawless tri-border region, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, has long been a suspected locus for Hizbullah fund-raising, although the State Department continues to rate the threat of terror strikes as low in most of these countries. Last month U.S. Treasury officials issued a statement describing in detail how an established Hizbullah network, based in Ciudad del Este in eastern Paraguay, has sent millions of dollars to the terrorist group over the past two years. The report also fingered nine Lebanese men--most of whom hold Paraguayan or Brazilian passports--it claimed were running the operation.
Latin America is home to between 3 million and 6 million Muslims, many of whose forefathers came from Syria and Lebanon in the 19th century. They settled largely in Brazil (which now has more than 1.5 million Muslims), Argentina (which has 700,000), Venezuela and Colombia. The region is no stranger to terror operations allegedly bearing Tehran's stamp.. In November, an Argentine judge issued arrest warrants for Iran's ex-president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and eight of his associates for complicity in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. An Argentine prosecutor has traced the planning for that operation to a 1993 meeting in the Iranian city of Mashhad. But Iran has denied the charges and said it would ignore any extradition requests from the government of President Nestor Kirchner. The case has yet to produce a single conviction and remains a sore point with Kirchner, who two weeks ago abruptly canceled plans to attend the Inauguration of Ecuador's new president, Rafael Correa, when he learned that Ahmadinejad would be there.
Sources in U.S. military intelligence have also identified Islamic radicals in the Brazilian cities of Sao Paolo and Curitiba, the Colombian town of Maicao, the Dutch Antilles island of Curacao and the Chilean free port of Iquique, where one of Hizbullah's fund-raisers traveled frequently to raise cash. The mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, spent some time in Brazil in 1995, and another Qaeda operative named Adnan G. al-Shukrijumah visited Panama in 2001 while traveling on a passport issued by Trinidad and Tobago. Dozens of missionaries belonging to a Pakistani-based Islamic organization called Jamaat al-Tabligh are dispatched to the region each year in search of converts. "The bottom line is that there are Islamic radical groups throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and not just in the tri-border area," says a U. …