National Security

State Dept. Report on Iran Influence in South America Criticized

Lawmakers, experts say State Department’s report on terror network’s growth lacked ‘depth’

Hasan Rouhani / AP

Lawmakers and foreign policy experts are fuming over a long-awaited State Department report on Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere, which they say was poorly researched, downplayed the Iranian threat in the region and failed to seriously address the issues.

The June report, which was mandated by Congress in December 2012, appears to have been "written by an intern," according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy senior fellow Matthew Levitt, who testified at a House Foreign Affairs joint subcommittee hearing on Thursday.

The unclassified version of the report determined that Iran’s influence in the region is waning, citing broken agreements between Iran and some Bolivarian countries.

According to Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, the State Department did not take into account Iran and its terror proxy Hezbollah’s "ability to slowly and methodically establish inroads necessary to launch acts of terrorism, as they did in Argentina while planning the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association."

"There was a reasonable expectation that the State Department would draft a thorough and thoughtful report in response to legitimate concerns that Iran and its proxies maintain influence throughout our hemisphere," Salmon said. "Unfortunately, the State Department delivered a dismissive report that lacked the depth and seriousness that this very important national security issue warrants."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, said in an opening statement that she was troubled by the report’s lack of seriousness.

"The report lacked a coherent and detailed strategy on what the Department of State and other federal agencies are doing to combat the Iranian threat in our region, and drastically underestimated that threat," Ros-Lehtinen said.

The State Department report was released around the same time as a 500-page investigation on the same subject by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, the lead investigator in the 1994 AMIA bombing. Contrary to the State Department’s conclusions, Nisman found that Iran has continued to expand its covert terror network in South America.

The State Department findings also appeared to contradict other U.S. government reports, including one released in May by the department itself that found Iran’s terror network was growing.

"The people who wrote this report did not…consult the people who would have the information," Levitt said. "Those people both in the [State] Department, and elsewhere, were quite upset that they were not properly consulted."

Michael A. Braun, a managing partner at Spectre Group International and a former Drug Enforcement Agency official, also testified about his concerns about the report.

"I think it was poorly put together," Braun said. "It was poorly written by unseasoned, probably, analysts that contributed. And I would sense that there wasn’t strong leadership involved as well."

He said Hezbollah continues to be heavily involved in the global cocaine trade, which helps finance its activities in South America and elsewhere.

House Foreign Affairs Committee member Rep. Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.), who wrote the legislation mandating the State Department’s June report, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday along with Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) and Salmon, Ros-Lehtinen, and Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), requesting more information from the department.

"We write to formally express our deep concerns that the State Department failed to fully analyze and assess Iranian involvement in the Western Hemisphere and produce a strategy to address Iran’s growing presence and activity," the letter reads.

The lawmakers asked why the report concluded that Iran’s influence was waning in light of its increased economic and diplomatic relations with Argentina and other countries; the letter also requests details on U.S. security efforts to prevent Iranian intelligence operatives from traveling into the United States from South America using false identification. The lawmakers requested a response from Kerry within 30 days.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment.