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US Military Strike on Iran: Implications for American Strategic Interests in Latin America

Ryan Clarke was Visiting Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 16, 2007

    Iran began clandestinely developing a uranium enrichment programme in the early 1980s and claims that it is for peaceful purposes and solely for civilian use. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has claimed that firstly, Iran has no need for nuclear weapons and secondly, that nuclear weapons are forbidden by Islam. Nonetheless, many nations remain suspicious and Iran’s continued defiance of UN Security Council resolutions which demand that Iran cease uranium enrichment has seemingly put Tehran on a collision course with the United States and the European Union, especially the UK, France, and Germany. Further, Washington and its European counterparts have even managed to bring sanctions-shy China and Russia on board to push for further sanctions in the event of Iran not heeding the calls of the U.N. Security Council.

    Although wounded by the misadventure in Iraq and despite several resignations, remnants of the neo-conservative movement remain in Washington. It has been reported that Vice President Dick Cheney is thoroughly convinced that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have a hidden military agenda and are aimed at acquiring regional hegemony – something that would be highly detrimental to Washington’s interests in the region – and is a strong advocate of the use of force to frustrate Iran’s suspected designs. Many believe that any attack on Iran would involve air strikes on suspected nuclear installations as well as attacks on missile sites, command and control centres, and bases used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Further, many of these same analysts seem to feel that the conflict would remain confined to the Middle East, with possible impacts on American interests in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel. However, they have forgotten about Colombia.

    Plan Colombia is a highly controversial framework that was drafted by Washington and Bogotá to assist the Colombian government (presently headed by Alvaro Uribe) to combat narcotics trafficking activities that have fuelled an over 40-year insurgency by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) from the jungles of south-eastern Colombia. Although FARC has its roots as a Marxist movement and received limited funding from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, in the early 1980s it began to discover the profitability of the cocaine trade and has since lost nearly any trait of a leftist movement. At present, FARC is estimated to reap profits of roughly US$2 million per day by supplying 90 per cent of the world’s cocaine.

    Plan Colombia has seen billions of dollars in US aid flood Colombia, resulting in a heavy American security presence in the country in the form of military advisors and private defence contractors, some of whom have been captured and remain in FARC custody. Plan Colombia has been heavily criticised in the United States as a poor investment that has not delivered tangible results and there are calls to drastically reform the framework or scrap it altogether. Further complicating this matter is Colombia’s geographic proximity to radical left-wing and virulently anti-American Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Latin America’s largest oil producer and a nation that has a well-documented history of tolerance and occasional active support for FARC’s activities in its territory. Needless to say, the stakes for Washington are high.

    So how does Iran fit into this equation? Iran’s strong ties with Venezuela are well known and Tehran would likely have no qualms in providing Caracas both heavy and light weaponry. Although Chavez’s rhetoric has alarmed some, his hostility towards the United States will not extend past words and economic actions, such as making life more difficult for US companies operating in the Orinoco belt, and would not proactively engage in conventional military action against the United States or its interests in Latin America. As such, Washington’s greatest security threat to its interests in Colombia lie in the Tri-Border Region, an ungoverned pocket of space that falls under the territorial jurisdiction of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. In this lawless area lives a substantial Arab diaspora of mostly Lebanese descent and is home to a branch of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Sunni Islamist group that has been blamed for attacks on Jewish/Israeli targets in Argentina and Panama. Further, it has been claimed that Hezbollah attacks in Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and even Canada have been foiled by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

    Some believe that FARC is the logistics partner for Hezbollah in Latin America and that this partnership would be extremely beneficial to both parties. Hezbollah has a worldwide fund-raising network that engages in smuggling, extortion, counterfeit currency, and various other nefarious activities. By working with Hezbollah, FARC would gain access to the Middle East, something that could greatly boost its operational capacities in both drug trafficking and its fight against Bogotá. Through the use of Hezbollah’s established network in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, FARC would be able to obtain advanced weaponry such as anti-tank mines, mortars, and anti-aircraft systems. Conversely, Hezbollah would be granted access to FARC’s extremely lucrative smuggling routes and could greatly increase its revenue generation as well as expand its operations throughout Latin America and the Middle East.

    A critical component of this relationship is the mutual benefit derived from joint training. Hezbollah has a wealth of experience in fighting both conventional and unconventional conflicts. For example, its terrorist acts such as the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and its involvement in the 1996 attacks on the Khobar Towers in Riyadh are well known. These operations involved extensive surveillance, intelligence gathering, training of operatives, and development of local contacts. Further, Hezbollah’s conflict with Israel in the summer of 2006 demonstrated that it can also hold its ground against a conventionally superior force. Few military analysts predicted that Hezbollah’s crudely-made Katyusha rockets would hold off Israeli fighter jets, missile-fitted spy drones, and Israeli ground forces. Lessons from these operations would greatly benefit FARC’s strategic thinkers. Likewise, FARC’s extensive experience in irregular, jungle warfare (greatly enhanced since training provided by the IRA) could also assist Hezbollah in preparing for its next conflict with Israel. Further, FARC could pass on specialised knowledge such as advanced bomb or mortar making, a body of knowledge that Hezbollah would find most useful given its choice of tactics in the Middle East.

    In the event of an attack on Iran, Tehran may attempt to activate Hezbollah in the Tri-Border Region in an effort to work through FARC to indirectly strike the United States in Colombia. As such, when discussing the possibilities of an attack on Iran, increased instability and threats to American interests in Colombia must be a consequence that is factored into the decision making process. Iran, through its Hezbollah proxy, has consistently demonstrated its global reach and there exists a possibility that the current regime in Iran would not be opposed to expanding the conflict outside of the Middle East if it were attacked.