American national security officials are not adequately addressing the deepening ties between socialist Latin American regimes and state sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East, experts say.
The ties, these experts add, could help hostile regimes flout international sanctions.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who is looking to fill the geopolitical vacuum left by the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, is strengthening his relationships with Iran and Syria, two outspoken foes of the United States.
Those ties are the products of efforts by regimes that have been isolated economically to "launder" funds through countries that can operate freely in the international economy, according to American Enterprise Institute fellow Roger Noriega, a former State Department official and U.S. ambassador to the Organization for American States.
American policymakers, Noriega said, have not adequately responded to the threat.
"It’s been a very flat learning curve with the Obama administration," he said of Iran’s increasing influence in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America.
Correa, who began his third term as president on Friday, reaffirmed Ecuador’s alliance with Iran.
"We would ratify it a thousand times over," Correa said of the alliance during his inaugural address, according to a translation of the speech.
Iran’s vice president for international affairs, who attended the inauguration in an official capacity, said the two countries "have elite people and revolutionary governments and we are happy that the ‘Citizens' Revolution’ — the slogan of Ecuador’s president — can live on," according to a report from Iranian state-owned media.
Correa also expressed support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which also sent an envoy — its former ambassador to Venezuela — to Correa’s inauguration, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency.
"What Syria encounters is a conspiracy, not demands for democracy," Correa said of international condemnations of Syrian war crimes.
More than 80,000 people have died since Syria’s civil war began two years ago. The United States believes the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons on Syrians, as well.
American policymakers have failed to adequately address the increasing influence of state sponsors of terrorism — particularly Iran — in Latin America, Noriega told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview.
Washington’s "overall policy does not fully appreciate what the Iranians are up to, and as a matter of fact, I think it’s fair to say, consciously averts attention from this phenomenon in a very dangerous, provocative way," he said.
There are measures the United States could take in the near term to address the threat, Noriega said.
"If we were to insist on a rigorous international inquiry into what Iran is up to… I think all of these hostile [Latin American] countries would be on notice, and the more friendly countries would be on alert to these kind of moves by Iran," Noriega said.
Progress in that effort has been disappointing, he added.
"Frankly, I just don’t think that the U.S. national security or foreign policy machinery is responding even with these meager measures."
Ecuador could provide Iran with a means to evade sanctions designed to impede its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, experts say, filling a role that Chavez’s Venezuela provided for years.
"The pattern that we’ve seen in, for example, Venezuela is vast sums of Iranian money put into the central bank of Venezuela and virtually every private bank in the country, and that could certainly happen in Ecuador," Noriega said.
"In Ecuador it’s particularly disturbing because Ecuador is a dollarized economy and the transactions with Ecuador can be used to evade international financial sanctions," Noriega said.
Iran’s relationship with Ecuador appears to be mirroring its arrangement with Venezuela, according to Joseph Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society, who has called Ecuador "one of Iran's largest money-laundering hubs in Latin America."
Tehran "has established strong economic and commercial ties with Ecuador over the last several years, Humire told the Free Beacon. "This includes banking relationships between their central banks, and a variety of financial commitments on behalf of the Iranians (much that has not materialized as of yet)."
Trade between the two countries "is strategically placed in the minerals market as well as other commodities," Humire said.
"Most of all this trade provides Iran plausible deniability to engage in commercial transactions through suspicious state-run banks…that can be used to provide the Islamic Republic with access to much needed [U.S. dollars]," he said.
Iran has looked to shore up its relationships with other Latin American countries of late.
The government of Argentina recently approved a deal with Iran to establish a "truth commission" to investigate the 1994 suicide bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured 300.
Argentine prosecutors hold the "the highest authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran" responsible for the bombing. Tehran "directed Hezbollah to carry out the attack," prosecutors said.
The case remains open in part because Iran has denied involvement and will not make the accused available for interrogation.