The behavior of the Iranian regime poses a significant danger to its own people, its neighbors, and the security of the United States. Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, its continued support for international terrorism, and its abuse of basic human rights require the United States to maintain extreme vigilance in countering these threats. Though our goal has not yet been realized, thanks to the leadership of this Congress and the Obama Administration, more pressure has been placed on the Iranian regime than ever before.
The increasingly isolated government of Iran has extended its tentacles far and wide in search of friends and resources. Today, we will investigate Iran’s dealings in the Western Hemisphere, and what these actions signify for the national security of the United States.
President Ahmadinejad just concluded his sixth trip to the region, which took him to Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua -- where he apparently accrues frequent visitor points. I can only assume that if any of the remaining 31 countries in the region would have him, he would have visited there, too.
The Ahmadinejad trip has clearly succeeded in causing a great deal of agitation in this country regarding the Iranian threat in our hemisphere, and suggestions that our President is not doing enough to counter it. From Ahmadinejad’s perspective, that alone may have made his trip worthwhile.
But political bluster on this topic is not harmless. I believe it does us all a real disservice by obfuscating what is real and what is not. As I have said before: given that the stakes are so high, it is critical that we get this analysis right.
Iran is arguably the foremost threat to United States interests in the world. And a nuclear Iran would be a significant threat not only regionally but globally. I know that if Iran is in our neighborhood, they are up to no good.
Iran was complicit in the horrific bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the first half of the 1990s. The recent discovery of a twisted Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador here in Washington is, frankly, not a mind-bending surprise. Add to this our intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s increasing willingness to conduct an attack on U.S. soil. So my specific interest this morning is to sift through the facts and discuss with the experts before us what about Iran’s relationship with the nations of our hemisphere should be of serious concern to us, and how the Iranian President’s recent trip plays into those concerns.
President Obama, in a recent interview with a Venezuelan newspaper, wondered aloud what the Venezuelan people hope to gain from a relationship with a country as isolated, repressive and outright dangerous as Iran. I wonder too.
A cursory survey of what Iran actually brings to the table of the four countries he visited indicates that it is littered with promises that go unfulfilled. Factories go un-built; ports go un-dredged; humanitarian aid goes undelivered. Importantly, this time Brazil closed the door to him after welcoming him for years.
As for the charge that the Administration is asleep at the switch, that is nonsense. President Obama has himself stated that his Administration will continue to monitor Iran’s activities in the Western Hemisphere closely and I have no reason to doubt his word. My own interactions with high-ranking officials in several U.S. agencies including the State Department, Drug Enforcement Agency, FBI, Treasury and the Intelligence Community have reassured me that our government is fully attentive to this matter. It is clear that our president and his administration understand what is at stake.
I have heard a wide range of explanations regarding the purpose and timing of the recent Ahmadinejad trip. Some have painted it as a veritable invasion. Some say it was a visit from an isolated and beleaguered leader to another isolated and beleaguered leader, Chavez, to distract from both of their troubles at home. Perhaps it was to shore up trade relationships, but Iran’s trade with this part of the world is meager. For example, Brazil's trade with Iran, by far the biggest in the region, only amounts to 0.4% of Iran's total trade.
Even if our gut tells us the Ahmadinejad-Chavez brotherhood is mostly political theater, it would be foolish to minimize Iran's interest in our hemisphere. But it is equally important to get it right.
I strongly support efforts to solidify the rigorous sanctions regime against Iran in our own hemisphere. But it seems to me that, given the complexity of relations with and among countries in our own hemisphere, a careless U.S. over-reaction to the Ahmadinejad trip could harm that goal more than the trip itself.
So what should we do? We should be alert to Iran's attempts to circumvent sanctions, and its efforts to curry favor with regional countries to loosen those sanctions. We should pay particular attention to technology or --- more likely --- raw materials transfers that might further Iran's nuclear ambitions. We should continue to monitor intelligence links, and watch the Iranian diplomatic corps, given its historical involvement in nefarious acts. We should keep a close watch on financial transactions in this region that might involve Iran: both where they come from, say drugs proceeds, and where they go -- such as funding the terrorist organization Hezbollah, or the despotic, increasingly desperate Syrian regime. The chaotic nexus of drug money and terrorism in this region deserves a close look, as it is a fertile place for bad things to happen on a significant scale.
The best way to prevent Iran from gaining influence in the Western Hemisphere is to continue to strengthen our relationship with the vast majority of countries in the region who, when push comes to shove, will prefer good relations with the United States over those with Iran. That means we need to be both watchful and smart. And only shout when we need to. I hope we are up to the task.