President-elect Donald Trump's pick to head the Department of Homeland Security has been warning for some time about Iranian influence along America's southern border and in South America in another sign that the incoming administration is seeking to tackle the Islamic Republic's terrorist footprint from its first days in office.
Retired Gen. John Kelly, a former commander of U.S. Southern Command, has been sounding the alarm about Iran's efforts to counter U.S. influence in Central and South America, according to past testimony.
Recent Stories in National Security
Kelly is expected to focus on this issue when he takes over DHS, which has been plagued by criticism about its failed attempts to seal the southern border under the Obama administration.
The selection follows a line of high-profile picks by Trump who are known for their outspoken criticism of Iran and the Obama administration's diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.
Kelly, during his time as Southcom's commander, informed Congress last year that Iran is bolstering its ties with Latin American countries in order to use the region as a base for operations.
"Over the last 15 years Iran has periodically sought closer ties with regional governments, albeit with mixed results," Kelly said in testimony to Congress in March 2015. "Iranian legislators visited Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua to advocate for increased economic and diplomatic cooperation. Iran's outreach is predicated on circumventing sanctions and countering U.S. influence."
Iran is building "cultural centers" in these countries to build support for its radical ideology among local Muslim populations, according to Kelly.
"Iran has established more than 80 ‘cultural centers' in a region with an extremely small Muslim population," he said. "The purported purpose of these centers is to improve Iran's image, promote Shi'a Islam, and increase Iran's political influence in the region. As the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran's involvement in the region and these cultural centers is a matter for concern, and its diplomatic, economic, and political engagement is closely monitored."
Kelly has also warned that Hezbollah, a terror organization primarily funded by Iran, has been building support in Latin America. Kelly said terrorist organizations could exploit the porous southern border to infiltrate the United States.
"Members, supporters, and adherents of Islamic extremist groups are present in Latin America," including Hezbollah, Kelly said in 2014.
Kelly described Iran's presence in the region as "a matter for concern."
Trump's selection of Kelly is winning early support from congressional Republicans who have worked with the former commander.
"In my capacity as chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, I have worked firsthand with Gen. Kelly on numerous Western Hemisphere security issues during his tenure as the head of the Southern Command," Rep. Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.), said in a statement. "He fully understands the threats from ISIS, Iran's activities in South and Central America, as well as the risks America faces due to our porous southern border."
"General Kelly has a wealth of experience and knowledge of the threats facing our country in the 21st Century, and I am confident he will help the president-elect form a robust strategy to protect America from radical Islamic extremism here at home, protecting American sovereignty and dealing with the numerous security issues here in the homeland," Duncan said.
One source in direct contact with the Trump transition team told the Washington Free Beacon that Kelly brings direct experience with Iran's infiltration of South America.
"General Kelly is an outstanding national security pick. It's another sign the Trump administration knows exactly how Iran has been destabilizing countries and sowing terror across the globe," the source said. "The Obama administration too often turned a blind eye to Iranian activities on U.S. soil, and even downplayed an Iranian terror plot to launch an attack in Washington, D.C. Clearly the Trump administration is signaling that it will do exactly the opposite, and will target Iranian aggression across all areas of national security."