Argentina’s populist-socialist president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has allowed Iran to infiltrate its economic sector and potentially use the country as a terrorist launching pad, U.S. officials and multiple experts said on Tuesday.
Iranian agents have been permitted access to Latin America’s Free Trade Zones, which operate throughout the porous borders that separate Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, the terrorism experts testified before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency.
Iran has significantly boosted its diplomatic ties with Argentina and other socialist countries, a move that allows Iranian officials to circulate through the region, according to the experts and independent U.S. officials not present at the hearing.
Under Kirchner, Argentina has begun to export large amounts of food and agricultural products to feed its hungry population, which has suffered under Western sanctions, according to U.S. officials.
Iran also recently opened a joint chamber of commerce last year in Buenos Aires, according to the U.S. officials.
Exports from Argentina to Iran jumped from around $84 million in 2008 to some $1.2 billion in 2011, according to U.S. officials. Argentina is Iran’s second largest trading partner in the region, according to the intelligence officials.
As Tehran gains access to Latin America it has been able to build a complex "pipeline to move illicit products all across the region," according to Joseph M. Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society.
These Latin American trade zones help Iran launder money and move people, military hardware, and other products throughout the region, Humire said.
The experts ultimately concluded that Iran has built a full-blown terror network that includes spies and senior military officials across Latin America, as socialist countries such as Argentina strengthen ties with Iran.
Iran has signed more than 500 trade and diplomatic agreements with a handful of Latin American countries over the past several years. The agreements are estimated to be worth some $40 billion dollars, experts said.
Iranian officials have said that it has 11 embassies and 17 cultural centers across Latin America, according to U.S. officials and expert Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.
These diplomatic compounds and embassies have traditionally been used as a base for Iran’s Quds Force, which also is tied to Hezbollah, according to U.S. officials.
These agreements have allowed Iran to place its diplomats and military-backed businessmen throughout the region.
While Tehran claims to operate legitimate businesses and embassies, Iranian agents have quietly radicalized the indigenous populations and used their influence to procure illicit military hardware, according to Humire.
The expert testimony comes just a month after the State Department published a mostly classified report that concluded, "Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning."
Lawmakers and experts rejected this conclusion, claiming that all available evidence indicates that Iran’s presence in the region has grown exponentially in recent years.
"I seriously question the administration’s judgment to [downplay] Iran’s presence at home," Rep. Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.) said during the hearing, criticizing the Obama White House for neglecting to include "the input of our foreign allies across the region."
Duncan said there is no way to be sure that Iran is not "smuggling people, drugs, and weapons through our porous southern border."
"The overall conclusion was the influence is waning. That took me aback," Humire said during a small press conference earlier in the day. "I really don’t see many indicators where you can say the influence is waning."
Iran has actually built "a maze of subsidiaries all through the region that don’t just work in the defense industry but the private industry," Humire said. "It hoodwinks these companies to work on" weapons technology and nuclear hardware.
Iran’s access to the transportation, mining, and shipping industries have "put a veil over Iran’s military program" and recruitment, Humire said.
From Venezuela to Bolivia and other socialist-oriented countries in the region, Iran has planted engineers, scientists, and private businessmen who are affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), according to Humire.
Iran "now [has] a military presence that is unprecedented in the region," he said.
U.S. officials have further determined that Iran is funding a defense academy in Bolivia.
The academy, which is training various Latin American forces, was formally inaugurated last years by Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, according to the U.S. officials, who estimate that around 50 to 300 Iranian trainers are stationed in Bolivia.
Others warned that Iran is quickly building a network that extends to countries bordering North America.
"You’ll see that expansion is growing and getting closer to our southern borders," said Walid Phares, a counterterrorism expert and Fox News commentator, during the morning press junket.
Iran has conducted several successful terrorist plots in the region dating back to the 1980s.
Senior Iranian officials in 1994 helped plan and carry out the deadly bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The AMIA attack is still under investigation in Argentina, where sources say Kirchner’s government has allowed Tehran to hijack the investigation in an attempt to cozy up to the regime.
The Argentinian government prohibited AMIA General Prosecutor Alberto Nisman from appearing before Congress Tuesday to discuss Iran’s growing power in the region.
Nisman has reported in the past that the "the AMIA bombing did not constitute an isolated event" and should "be investigated and understood as a segment in a larger sequence."
An empty seat with a tag bearing Nisman’s name was set up in the House hearing room.
In addition to establishing embassies and other cultural centers, Iran has started mining operations to explore for uranium, the key element in a nuclear weapon, and other minerals that could be used to build weapons, according to the American Foreign Policy Council’s Berman.
U.S. officials have further determined that Iran is ramping up its mining efforts by providing both technical and engineering services, mainly in Venezuela and Bolivia.