For several years the Iranian regime has been expanding its diplomatic and economic presence in the Western Hemisphere. It has done so with a great deal of assistance from Cuba – a State Department-designated state sponsor of terrorism – as well as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, among others. Even some of our better allies in the region, Colombia and Mexico, for reasons unknown, have allowed the Iranian regime to open embassies.
Out in the open Iranian adventurism in the Western Hemisphere is a rather new and dangerous phenomena that continues to grow and needs immediate attention. The mullahs and their proxies have found political common ground with many of the region’s populist and left-wing leaders. What better way to target the Great Satan than by parking yourself in his immediate sphere of influence?
Tackling this problem will take time and political smarts. Diplomacy could use improving because, had it been effective, there would be little formal Iranian presences to begin with. And we cannot blame the Obama Administration for Iranian penetration began during the Bush Administration. A good place to begin is with the soft underbelly of this operation, robustly follow the money.
Some of the more recent publicly reported projects the Iranians fund, or plan to fund, include a large sea port in Nicaragua ($350 million) and infrastructure projects in Bolivia ($1 billion). There are numerous other endeavors in Ecuador. In 2009, bilateral trade between Iran and Brazil was close to $1.5 billion. While trade between Venezuela and Iran since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 adds up to a staggering $7 billion and hundreds of bilateral trade agreements. This may not seem like a great deal of money, but it is for most these developing countries. There is a lot more there and we need to start targeting it.
Numerous U.S. laws and regulations, including the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 signed by President Obama this summer, are powerful tools that should be used to start squeezing the Iranian money trail. Lending institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) also need to stop ignoring, and at times encouraging, Iranian investments in the Americas.
For a regional economic vise to be effective, companies in the region need to choose between a short-term sale involving Iran or continued access to U.S. financial markets. If they insist working on these projects, then they need to be advised that they may be violating U.S. sanctions laws. Punitive measures include being blocked from doing business with U.S. financial institutions, denying U.S. visas to company executives, and much more. International lenders such as the IADB also need reminding that, as recipient of U.S. taxpayer monies, the institution has an obligation to tell members that doing business with Iran is bad policy that could hurt future financing.