The Islamo-Bolivarian threat – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.
The Islamo-Bolivarian threat
Should the US be worried about the close relationship between Iran and Venezuela?
Belen Fernandez Last Modified:
17 Aug 2011 13:22
Recent years have seen an increasingly close relationship between Venezuela and Iran [EPA]
In early July, the US Congressional Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a hearing entitled “Hezbollah in Latin America – Implications for US Homeland Security“.
The line-up of witnesses consisted of Roger Noriega, visiting fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute; Douglas Farah, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center; Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and journal editor for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; and Brown University professor Dr. Melani Cammett, the only testifier who bothered to provide an accurate history of Hezbollah and to refrain from referring to the Lebanese political party and resistance movement as a terrorist organisation directed by Iran.
Cammett’s co-witnesses more than made up for her dearth of creativity. Given the quality of what is consistently allowed to pass as evidence of the threat posed to the US by the supposed love affair between Iran and leftist Latin American regimes, it is perhaps only surprising that the first three expert-propagandists did not invoke Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s joke in the Oliver Stone documentary “South of the Border” – in reference to a corn-processing facility – that, “This is where we build the Iranian atomic bomb.”
Stripped of its facetious intent, the comment would have proved an able companion to the clique’s existing arsenal of justifications for increased US militarisation of Latin America as well as potential military manoeuvrings against Iran.
The Caracas-Tehran one-stop
No congressional subcommittee hearing would have been complete without testimony confirming that it is currently possible to travel by air from Caracas to Tehran with only one stop in Damascus.
This bit of trivia, mentioned by both Noriega and Farah, has for the past several years been a favourite among neoconservative pundits as well as members of the Israeli foreign ministry.
During his June 2009 expedition to Honduras to attend the 39th General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon warned: “We know that there are flights from Caracas via Damascus to Tehran.” The superior urgency of the “Iranian attempt to penetrate into the continent” was unclear given that no representatives of the Islamic Republic or any other non-American state had been present at said assembly.
In addition to Ayalon’s appearance in Honduras, other instances of proof of the facility of transatlantic travel include the 1983 training in Israel of Carlos Castano, father of modern Colombian paramilitarism, who acknowledged inheriting the concept from the Israelis. It comes as no surprise that Israeli-Colombian models of terrorisation and displacement of populations infringing economically, ideologically, or ethnically on the interests of power are deemed far less deserving of contemplation in certain circles than, for example, the “dangerous ‘caudillo-mullah’ axis” advertised by the Honourable Noriega.
Noriega’s scary secret fantasy stash
Roger Noriega, one of various Iran-Contra relics recycled into subsequent US administrations, served under the Bush II regime as US ambassador to the OAS and then as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. The Iran-Contra portion of his curriculum vitae suggests that he has already had considerable experience with a different sort of caudillo-mullah axis, according to which profits from arms sales to the axis’ latter half went to benefit supporters of right-wing dictatorships in Nicaragua.
Noriega’s transparent fear-mongering efforts against the new axis often employ a vocabulary of limited range, such that in the past ten months alone we have been alerted to the existence of rightist Honduran President Pepe Lobo’s “Secret Pact with Hugo Chavez” as well as “Chavez’s Secret Nuclear Program” and “Argentina’s Secret Deal With Iran?“, and have been reminded that the Caracas-Tehran one-stop is part of “Hugo Chavez’s Scary Anti-American Campaign.”
The sensational effects of Noriega’s strategic reliance on “secrets” are somewhat mitigated by his inability to sustain his own allegations. As Nicaragua-based journalist Charles Davis points out in a March 2011 piece for Right Web with regard to Noriega’s October 2010 detection of Venezuela’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme:
|“[T]hat show-stopping claim of nuclear proliferation on the US’s ‘soft underbelly’ isn’t mentioned in [Noriega’s] more recent, 2,700 word policy guide for the new Congress. According to leaked State Department cables released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, US diplomats have privately mocked the notion that Venezuela is assisting Iran’s nuclear program or developing atomic weapons – or even capable of developing a civilian nuclear power program.”
In a dispatch entitled “Chavez the Cocaine Capo?“, Noriega speculates that the Venezuelan leader “should be very troubled that a man whom President Obama has branded one of the world’s most significant drug kingpins, Walid Makled-Garcia, may soon be telling US federal prosecutors everything he knows about senior Venezuelan officials who have abetted his cocaine smuggling operations”. The attempt to discredit leftist governments by saddling them with drug trafficking ties should be juxtaposed with the fact that CIA facilitation of the accrual by right-wing Nicaraguan paramilitaries of revenues from cocaine distribution in the US is no secret.
Farsi tattoos, Mexicans and geography
The tendency to heap socialists, Islamists, drug traffickers, and other undesirables into a single nexus of malevolence is also observable in a 2010 letter from US Representative Sue Myrick to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, hyping the idea that Hezbollah is cooperating with drug cartels on the US southern border.
Apparently unconcerned that the friendly Mexican government may also be cooperating with drug cartels on the same border, Myrick delivers the smoking gun:
|“Across states in the Southwest, well trained officials are beginning to notice the tattoos of gang members in prisons are being written in Farsi. We have typically seen tattoos in Arabic, but Farsi implies a Persian influence that can likely be traced back to Iran and its proxy army, Hezbollah. These tattoos in Farsi are almost always seen in combination with gang or drug cartel tattoos.”
Myrick’s argument was compelling enough to merit regurgitation by Douglas Farah at last month’s congressional subcommittee hearing and then by Texas’ Rio Grande Valley KRGV news station, which cautioned: “Terrorists Use New Identifying Markers To Recognize Each Other”. As for Myrick’s contention that, thanks to the bond between Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians can now learn Spanish in Venezuela and then cross the US border posing as Mexicans, the need for enhanced racial profiling in the US has also been suggested by the global intelligence firm STRATFOR’s analysis that Hezbollah looks Mexican.
Farah’s testimony meanwhile also included the allegation that Venezuela is an “ideal launching pad” for drug trafficking due to its “geographic proximity to West Africa”. That Farah is unable to present his arguments without resorting to such preposterous calculations does not aid his overall credibility, which is further obviated via his announcement that Iran, the Bolivarian states, Hezbollah, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC):
|“Share a doctrine of asymmetrical warfare against the United States that embraces the use of weapons of mass destruction, massive civilian casualties as acceptable collateral damage and the underlying belief that the acquisition of nuclear weapons to destroy the United States is a moral or religious imperative. This is not a statement of capacity, but a clear statement of intention.”
The problem here, of course, is that it is not clear what the “this” that is allegedly a clear statement of intention is referring to aside from Farah’s own fabrications, given that none of the listed entities has ever expressed belief in the necessity of a nuclear destruction of the US and that the practice of inflicting massive collateral casualties has in recent history been monopolised by the US-Israel axis.
Relentlessly invoked as evidence of the malicious continental designs of Iran/Hezbollah is the extermination of civilians in Buenos Aires in terrorist attacks on the Israeli embassy and the AMIA, the Jewish cultural centre, in 1992 and 1994, respectively. The standard argument is that the attacks were conducted as revenge for Argentina’s cancellation of nuclear contracts with Iran.
However, as historian and investigative journalist Gareth Porter points out in an in-depth report for The Nation, a top Argentine nuclear official has confirmed that negotiations to resume cooperation with Iran continued throughout the period in which the bombings occurred and that it appeared the outcome would be favourable to the Islamic Republic. This raises the possibility that revenge may have instead been the priority of a non-Iranian party.
Walking down the street in Buenos Aires in July 2009, I quickly learned from the disproportionate number of sidewalk billboard advertisements featuring Chavez and Ahmadinejad clasping hands – accompanied by a warning of “Iranian penetration in Latin America” – that the annual observance of the anniversary of the AMIA attack constituted a prime occasion on which to intensify the dissemination of paranoia. The penetration ads directed consumers to an article by a certain Ely Karmon in Veintitres magazine and were interspersed with posters depicting an unoccupied bed with white sheets in commemoration of the “85 goodbyes”, which I first assumed was a reference to the current Argentine swine flu epidemic rather than the AMIA fatalities.
Veintitres defines Karmon as a Senior Academic Investigator at the International Counterterrorism Institute and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. His senior academic investigatory techniques in this case include plagiarising three paragraphs from a 2007 Miami Herald article by Andres Oppenheimer, whose observation that “Ahmadinejad must love the tropics” because he has spent more time in Latin America than George W. Bush, Karmon does attribute to the Herald – albeit without explaining how it is that the former US president has become the standard against which travel frequency to places other than Crawford, Texas, should be measured.
Karmon’s investigation exposes worrisome trends such as that Farsi is being taught at Venezuelan universities, that a number of Iranian engineers have learned basic Spanish, and that Hezbollah operations have recently been “thwarted in Azerbaijan and an unidentified European country”. He additionally draws attention to a 2008 Los Angeles Times article that reports word of a joint scheme between Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Venezuelan airport workers to exploit IranAir’s Venezuela service in order to capture Jewish businessmen in Latin America and smuggle them to Lebanon. The “Western anti-terrorism official” to whom knowledge of the plan is ascribed does not explain why the one-stop to Tehran is not thus a non-stop to Beirut.
As for other functions of the Caracas-Tehran trajectory, these have been revealed by Roger Noriega, who, two weeks after declaring that “We can only guess who and what are aboard these flights”, managed to inform the congressional subcommittee: “The Hezbollah networks use these flights and others to ferry operatives, recruits, and cargo in and out of the region.”
Nicaragua misplaces mega-embassy and canal
Another persistent cause for concern is the Iranian diplomatic presence in Latin America, as exemplified in Douglas Farah’s testimony: “In Bolivia recently the Iranian embassy reportedly asked for more than two dozen spaces in the international school for children of their newly-arrived diplomats there.” It is not clear why the Iranian embassy in Bolivia is inherently more sinister than the Iranian embassies in Canada and the UK.
Journalist Charles Davis summarises the ruckus generated by Iran’s reported ambassadorial mother ship in Nicaragua:
|“In 2009, prominent neoconservatives like Michael Rubin drew attention to media reports claiming that Iran had built a new embassy in Nicaragua’s sprawling capital Managua that was ‘the largest diplomatic mission in the city’. The embassy, coupled with Iran’s investments in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the region, Rubin warned, indicated the Islamic Republic ‘might see Latin America as a beachhead from which to conduct an aggressive strategy against the United States and its allies’.
“The claim was spread throughout right-wing policy circles. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton picked it up. “The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua,” she warned in 2009, just a few months after taking office. “And you can only imagine what that’s for.”
“But as the Washington Post reported in July 2009, that “huge embassy in Managua” could not be found. “It doesn’t exist,” a chuckling Ernest Porta, head of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce, told the paper.”
As for last year’s headline in the Israeli daily Haaretz according to which “Iran, Venezuela plan to build rival to Panama Canal,” the prospect of an Iranian-funded “‘Nicaragua Canal’ linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans” becomes less convincing when the following detail appears at the end of the article: “A US State Department official told Haaretz’s Washington correspondent Natasha Mozgovaya on Wednesday that the US is not aware of any plans to build a new canal in Latin America.”
In an October 2009 presentation to the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs entitled “Iranian Penetration into the Western Hemisphere through Venezuela“, Norman A. Bailey – former Mission Manager for Cuba and Venezuela under Director of National Intelligence and Honduran death squad ally John D. Negroponte – unearthed further insidious machinations on the part of the penetrators.
A champion of the 2009 US-backed coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, Bailey converted Chavez’s displeasure at intra-hemispheric neoliberal penetration into the result of Iranian inter-hemispheric penetration and the idea that “the Iranians had opened a ‘maintenance’ facility in Honduras for… ‘tractors’ produced in Venezuela, in reality a drug transshipment warehouse.” International observers with a less keen eye, such as the Agence France-Presse news outfit, reported the delivery of Venezuelan tractors to Honduras without realising that they were not really tractors.
Bailey describes Iranian involvement in Latin America as “curious” given that “[t]here is no affinity at all between monarchic or Islamic Iran and the countries of the Hemisphere; historical, cultural, political, economic or otherwise.” One might ponder what sort of cultural or political affinities exist between the US and monarchic Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan, or whether trade between Venezuela and Iran does not constitute economic affinity. As for Bailey’s assessment that “one of the principal motivations [for Iranian activity in the region] is to be able to retaliate against the [sic] United States if [Iran] is attacked,” it is not clear whether Bailey is aware that he has just characterised Iranian penetration as defensive rather than predatory in nature.
Barrios of Caracas convert to Shia Islam
Ely Karmon’s prediction concerning the possibility of sudden religious affinities and the inculcation of the Latin American poor with Shia teachings meanwhile appears to be as of yet unfounded given Chavez’s contention that Jesus Christ was an anti-imperialist who died on the cross as a result of the class struggle. That some level of ideological convergence is nonetheless possible is suggested by Roger Noriega’s observation that “radical Muslims from Venezuela and Colombia are brought to a cultural center in Caracas named for the Ayatollah Khomeini and Simon Bolivar for spiritual training.”
The danger of Latin American collaboration with a foreign country that – unlike the US – has not in contemporary history engaged in such regional activities as inaugurating schools for aspiring dictators and death squad leaders, presiding over illegal detention centres, and infecting local populations with syphilis is meanwhile fairly straightforwardly spelled out by Douglas Farah:
|“All of this [collaboration] comes at the expense of US influence, security and trade – including energy security and hence economic and infrastructure security (Venezuela is the 4th largest supplier of US petroleum imports, just behind Mexico; indeed Latin America is our 2nd largest source of supply overall, only slightly behind the Middle East).”
“Security”, of course, is not to be confused with stability – a concept that has no place in the business of regional militarisation and incitement.
Belen Fernandez is an editor at PULSE Media. Her book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work will be released by Verso on Nov. 1, 2011.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.