Iran is solidifying its foothold in Latin America, sparking concerns among U.S. officials that the Islamic Republic will enlist these regional allies in its push to launch terror attacks on U.S. soil, according to conversations with congressional sources.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been on a diplomatic tour through key Latin American countries known for hostility towards the United States, including Cuba, Venezuela, and a host of other countries believed to be providing shelter to Iranian terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah.
As Iranian-ally Russia boosts its spy operation in the region, sources have raised concerns about the rogue nations working together to foster anti-U.S. unrest.
Zarif’s trip through the region has raised red flags among some senior congressional sources familiar with the region. For example, Zarif took aim at the United States and touted the regime’s desire to align with anti-American countries during his stay in Cuba.
One senior congressional source who works on the issue said to the Washington Free Beacon that Iran is seeking to recruit "potential terrorists who want to cause the U.S. harm."
Increased ties between Iran and these Latin American nations are setting the stage for terrorists to penetrate close to U.S. soil with little detection.
These individuals "can travel easily to Venezuela, and once there, they can get to Nicaragua or Cuba without passports or visas, which poses a national security risk for our nation," the source explained.
Iran has also reopened its embassy in Chile, a move that has only added fuel to speculation among U.S. officials that the Islamic Republic is making moves to position its global terror network on America’s doorstep.
"The threat to U.S. national security interests and our allies should be setting off alarm bells," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement about Zarif’s Latin American tour.
"The Obama administration has failed to prevent Russia and China from expanding in our Hemisphere, and now Iran is once again stepping up its efforts to gain a greater presence to carry out its nefarious activities," Ros-Lehtinen said. "I urge the White House to stop downplaying the Iranian threat and take immediate action to prevent the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism from establishing a regional safe haven in the Americas."
Asked to comment on Zarif’s trip and the potential repercussions on Monday, a State Department official said to the Free Beacon that the administration had no comment.
Ros-Lehtinen said the high-profile trip by Zarif should serve as a warning.
"The timing of Zarif’s trip is significant as Iran could use many of these rogue regimes to circumvent remaining sanctions, undermine U.S. interests, and expand the drug trafficking network that helps finance its illicit activities," she said. "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."
The renewed concerns about Iran’s footprint in Latin America comes nearly two years after the State Department said Tehran’s influence in the region was "waning."
"The timing of Zarif’s trip speaks volumes," said the senior congressional aide who would discuss the issue only on background. It "is worrisome that as we just celebrated the 22nd year of the horrific terrorist attack against the AMIA Jewish community center in Argentina, Iran can now have personnel nearby in a new embassy in Chile."
"Just recently, a Hezbollah member was picked up in Brazil, an explosive device was found near the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, and Hezbollah members are reportedly traveling on Venezuelan passports," the source added. "It was not too long ago that Venezuela offered flights to Iran and Syria, and as of last week, Hezbollah cells were found in the West Bank where Venezuela lifted its visa requirements for Palestinians."
Zarif slammed the United States on Monday during a speech in Havana.
"Iran and Cuba could prove to the U.S. that it cannot proceed with its policies through exerting pressure on other countries," Zarif said, according to Iran’s state-controlled media.
"Now the time is ripe for realizing our common goals together and implement the resistance economy in Iran and materialize [Cuban dictator Fidel] Castro’s goals of reconstruction of the Cuban economy," Zarif added.
Zarif went on to note that Iran "has age-old and strong relations with the American continent and the Latin American countries."
Zarif is reported to have brought along at least 60 Iranian officials and executives working in the country's state-controlled economic sector.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Free Beacon that Iran has boosted efforts to engage Latin America in the wake of last summer's nuclear agreement.
"Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif is aggressively continuing Iran’s diplomatic outreach, a policy which began early in the Rouhani administration and was kicked into high gear in the aftermath of the JCPOA—last summer’s nuclear deal," he said. "Zarif’s sojourn into the Western hemisphere follows on the heels of his May visit to the region. Zarif’s trip symbolically commences in Havana, Cuba, where the Iranian foreign minister harped on themes of steadfastness and resistance to American legal and economic pressure."
The Iranian leader's goal is to "build on this experience to help promote an anti-American and anti-capitalist world order," he added. "What’s most clear however, is that in addition to seeking to solidify the anti-American political orientation of these states, Iran aims to capitalize on the increasingly detached stigma of doing business with it in the aftermath of the nuclear accord. Therefore, we can expect to see trade deals or memorandums of understanding inked. In short, Iran will be looking to deepen to its footprint in Latin America."