MIAMI—The Iranian government is significantly boosting its presence and resources in Latin America, posing a national security threat to the region, according to a group of U.S. and Latin American officials who met earlier this week in Florida to discuss Iran’s covert actions.
While Iran has long had a foothold in the Western hemisphere, these officials warned that the Islamic Republic has invested significant resources into its Latin American operations in a bid to increase its sway in the region.
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Iran’s growing influence in the region—and its effort to exert influence over governments there—has fostered pressing security concerns as the Iranians inch closer to the United States’ southern border, according to these U.S. officials and Latin American leaders, who met for several days this week at a summit organized by the Israel Allies Foundation (IAF).
"It is troubling in some of the briefings we get, particularly on the classified side, to see Iranian influence in Latin America," Rep. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.), a member of the House Committee of Foreign Affairs, told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview. "A lot of these [Latin American officials] share the concern."
"It’s a security risk for all of us," DeSantis said.
DeSantis was one of several members of Congress and 20 Latin American lawmakers from 14 different countries who met during the IAF summit, which began on Sunday and ran until Tuesday morning.
Iran is becoming increasingly open about its presence in Latin America and providing its officials with passports from Venezuela and other countries, giving them free rein to travel throughout South America.
Iran has forged close ties with countries such as Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, among others.
Luis Heber, a member of the Uruguayan senate, said that Iranian agents—who some suspect are members of the country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—have been spotted in his country holding Venezuelan passports.
Officials have determined that there is "a clear penetration of Iran in our country," Heber said during remarks Sunday before U.S. lawmakers and other Latin American officials.
"We’ve also seen Venezuelan passports in the hands of Iranians," he revealed. "The penetration of Venezuela by Iran is clear. There is overwhelming information on this."
Heber said Uruguayan officials have spotted at least 10 Iranians carrying Venezuelan passports.
They "can enter anywhere in Latin America because the passports are legal," he explained.
Iran’s goal, in part, is to establish deep ties in these countries in order to influence their policies toward America, Israel, and other Western allies, officials said.
"The threat level has increased, it’s more open," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), vice-chair of the House’s Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
"The Iranian threat comes not from espionage as much, but from influencing the ideology of their host country," Ros-Lehtinen said. "That’s what they’re aiming for and penetrating [these countries] so they have a presence in Latin America right at the foothold of the U.S."
Iran establishes consulates in these countries and then uses them as a base to conduct espionage and other covert activities, Ros-Lehtinen said.
"How is it they have Iranian consulates in Latin America?" she asked. "It’s ridiculous to think all of sudden Latin Americans want to travel to Iran. They’re not using it to issue their visas. Something is happening that Iran is penetrating the Western Hemisphere and it’s not for cultural exchanges or approval of travel docs."
"This makes no sense … other than espionage, subterfuge, and illicit activities," Ros-Lehtinen said.
This activity has intensified of late, several officials said.
"There’s no question we’re seeing an uptick in Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere," Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), a House Foreign Affairs Committee member, said during a meeting with the Latin American leaders in attendance.
"Unfortunately, the U.S. administration, our administration, seems to be willing to turn a blind eye towards what’s happening," he said.
"There have been instances where Iranian agents have crossed the U.S. border," Salmon claimed, referring to past reports by members of Hezbollah being arrested attempting to cross the Mexican border.
Iran currently hosts at least 80 so-called cultural centers in the region and has doubled the number of embassies in the region since 2005.
Ros-Lehtinen warned that this activity has become "more pronounced and open" in the past few years.
"Now they’re in the open, above board, advertising and letting the world know, ‘We’re right in your front and back yard,’" Ros-Lehtinen said.