US Southern Commandís top officer told Congress today that Iran
is actively working to expand its presence in Latin America to
cultivate allies at a time when Tehran is facing tough US and
international sanctions for its alleged nuclear weapons program.
Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly told the House Armed Services Committee that Iran "has been very, very active over the last few years" in cultivating diplomatic and cultural ties to the region, especially by befriending Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died earlier this month.
"Theyíve opened embassies, theyíve opened cultural centers," he testified, adding that on the surface, all of this appears to be normal.
"But to what end is obviously the issue," he told the House panel.
Kelly told lawmakers he could discuss details about what the Iranian governmentís goals might be only in a closed session. He mentioned Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina as countries that have been the target of Iranís diplomatic and economic outreach.
Despite Iranís outreach to countries that he said have interests unfavorable to the United States, the general cast Iranís overtures as being far from successful and described a region as largely uninterested in Tehranís diplomatic engagement.
"The region as a whole has not been receptive to Iranian efforts," Kelly said in his prepared testimony. But he cautioned that Iranís allies, including Hezbollah, have established a presence in several Latin-American countries to deadly effect, recalling that Iran and Hezbollah were blamed for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that killed more than 80 people.
"Proselytizers with ties to global Islamic groups are attempting to radicalize and recruit among the Muslim communities throughout the region," he said, adding that the United States and its partners "should be extremely concerned whenever external extremist groups or state sponsors of terrorism see the Western Hemisphere as attractive or, even worse, vulnerable."
Kelly pointed out that Venezuelan government officials have been sanctioned for providing financial support to Hezbollah, as well as for supporting rebels in neighboring Colombia.
Kelly said China is another country far outside Latin America that wants to compete with the United States for influence in the region, and is very engaged economically, "buying commodities in a big way and also investing in port facilities." This, he added, is all the more reason for the United States to continue working to strengthen partnerships in the region.
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