An Iranian “Base” in Central America

A few weeks ago Iranian gunboats engaged in a dangerous exercise threatening U.S. warships in the Straits of Hormuz.   The incident generated headlines and stories for several days as well as fascinating, albeit grainy, video coverage of the encounters.  As Secretary of Defense Bob Gates commented, the encounters serve as “[a] reminder that there is a very unpredictable government in Tehran.” 

While the Middle East incident was a serious encounter that is likely to repeat itself, just last week in the Western Hemisphere Iranian adventurism generated little if any headlines with mainstream U.S. or international media outlets.   The week before last, Iranian officials began to arrive in yet another regional capital city to open another so-called trade mission.  The opening of the Quito, Ecuador Iran trade office was formally announced by President Rafael Correa last month but its presence was well known for weeks ahead of time by business and government officials since it appears that the opening of the office was negotiated during the Iranian leader’s last visit to the region in 2007.

In various discussions that I’ve had with leading Ecuadorian business leaders and former government officials, concern is growing about the presence of the Iranians in Ecuador.   It is not as if there is any cultural or even religious affinity with Iran.  Ecuador is overwhelmingly Roman-Catholic.  Even the business links makes little if any sense as a more logical trading partner one just need look north to the U.S. or to partners in the region.  “Nothing good can come of this arrangement,” advised a former minister.  “Just look at Monkey Point and Managua in Nicaragua and you’ll understand what it is that the Iranians want, a position to make trouble for the U.S. and its allies,”  he added.

Monkey Point, Nicaragua, et al

Monkey Point is a small Creole town located in the eastern Nicaraguan municipality of Bluefields.  It is an area with a rather rich history for the region that includes European pirates and bucanneers.  At one point, Bluefields served as the capital of the British Mosquito Coast protectorate while U.S. Marines were stationed there twice during the early 20th century.  The region also has an interesting chapter in its role countering the communists in the region during the Cold War.  As far as Monkey Point and current events, the town is located south of city of Bluefields and is the planned site, or so it is reported, of a proposed several million dollar seaport that is supposed to be financed by Venezuela and Iran.

The details of the plan are not well known, but from public reports it is said to include the construction of a railroad, some homes for the poor locals, a pipeline, and other infrastructure.  If you Google this issue you will find stories about Iranian and Venezuelan officials landing in military helicopters in the region.  One of the better summaries of this issue is posted at Petroleumworld.com.

With projects such as these come the requisite number of engineers, project managers, and in the case of Iran, diplomats and Revolutionary Guard officials.  Colleagues from Nicaragua advise that the Iranians have also set up shop in the capital suburb of Las Colinas – a high end neighborhood near the capital city.  

The Iranian mission is headed up by Akbar Esmaeil-Pour and there are reports, again unsubstantiated, that Iranians are flying in and out of Nicaragua without visas.   The latter is not too far-fetched when you consider public comments by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez’s comments last year that Iran Air could fly in and out of the country without visas or passenger checks.  There are reports that Chavez ally, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, may have done the same.  So, what we have in essensce, is an Iranian base of operations in Central America in a socialiast-led country with an anti-American leader, Daniel Ortega, making the invite and providing safe harbor to a Middle Eastern terrorist regime.

Another Terror Sanctuary in the Americas?

Just this weekend the Iranian and Nicaraguan officials met in Managua.  The Nicaraguans offered their perfunctory support of Iran’s right to “peaceful use of nuclear energy,” to which the Iranian Foreign Minister added “the exchange of high-ranking commercial delegates has opened a new chapter in the two countries’ relations.”  It is the exact same process we saw unfold in Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, and other places. 

When all is said and done, Venezuelan, Cuban, and Iranian adventurism in Central America, or so the Nicaraguan President would say, is about oil and energy.  Venezuela has promised to build an oil refinery and the Iranians conveniently decided to assist in the effort.   In reality, it is much more complicated than just energy and regional project development.  Venezuela is clearly on the path, or at least it should be, to earning a terrorist sanctuary designation under current U.S. law for its support not only of the FARC-People’s Army but Iran as well.  What of these other host countries?

Regional leaders know all too well that Iran has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department since 1984.  The countries of the hemisphere should also understand that under current law the U.S. can, for starters, designate countries that cooperate with Iran terrorist sanctuaries.  Such a designation can have serious economic repercussions for these developing countries including much-needed access to the U.S. market.  Inviting and collaborating with a terrorist state such as Iran also goes against the Organization of American States (“OAS”) Charter and post-09.11.11 anti-terrorism posture.

For now, the Iranians have successfully created what amounts to yet another forward operating base in the Western Hemisphere, this time in Central America.  With similar “diplomatic” and “commercial” missions in Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Iran just about has all of the key regions of the hemisphere with some presence of concern to the U.S. and our regional allies.  The question remains, what are we going to do about it? 

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