As we enter into a campaign season wholeheartedly focused on our economic security, let us not forget our national security.
Right here, under our noses, a strategic alliance is being formed between Iran and Venezuela. More than 150 Iranian diplomats are accredited in Caracas -- a disproportionate number by any count -- demonstrating the Tehran regime's unusual involvement in Latin America. Over the past few years, this honeymoon between Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has given birth to increased military involvement between the two countries, a complex financial web to bypass international sanctions against the ayatollahs and an operational infrastructure for carrying out terrorism against the nations of the free world, especially the United States and Israel.
This growing alliance between their respective military establishments allows Iran to extend its strategic coordination deep into the Western Hemisphere, enabling conventional, nuclear and terrorist capabilities well beyond Tehran's geographic vicinity. It was revealed recently that Venezuela is building military drones for Iran and has supplied Iran with an unknown number of F-16 warplanes for countermeasure training and radar calibration. Also, the top Venezuelan diplomat in Florida, Consul General Livia Acosta, was expelled in January by the State Department because of her well-documented involvement with an Iranian cyberterrorism plot against American nuclear facilities.
The unholy alliance also has enabled Iran to skirt United Nations' and other international economic sanctions meant to slow Tehran's nuclear weapons program. Venezuela has publicly declared its support for Iran's nuclear aspirations, and an economic and financial web of joint ventures, accounts and agreements makes it easy for Iran to bypass arms embargoes, banking freezes, oil boycotts and other economic steps taken to slow the theocracy's nuclear policy of proliferation. For instance, Venezuela provides front companies and facilities to Iran's petrochemical and arms industries, uses its banking system to middle-man oil payments, and extends political support for Tehran in the international arena in order to bypass international sanctions. This Venezuelan support constitutes a vital lifeline, nurturing the ayatollahs' bomb, and enables Iran's nuclear program to grow and strengthen.
Yet the Iranian infiltration of Latin America goes beyond Venezuela. Tehran has funded the establishment of a paramilitary facility in Bolivia for the training of operatives from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas. Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi (wanted by Interpol for his involvement in terrorist bombings in Argentina) personally presided over the academy's inauguration, and as many as 300 Iranian "trainers" from the blacklisted Iranian Revolutionary Guards are reported to be involved in the center's operation. Iran also is active in what is known as the "triple frontier" region, a lawless zone between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. It is a hotbed of extremism, black marketing, smuggling and narco-terrorist funding, mostly under the direction of a very large radical Shiite diaspora living in the area. In addition, Iranian embassies and consulates throughout the continent contain large contingents of "attaches," members of the Qods Force whose mission is to engender clandestine support for Iranian covert operations.
In his latest threat assessment, National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are more willing to conduct an attack in the United States. Furthermore, "Iran has methodically cultivated a network of sponsored terrorist surrogates capable of conducting effective, plausibly deniable attacks against Israel and the United States," reports the Pentagon's latest assessment of Iran's military power. A case in point is last year's complex attempted terrorist attack carried out in the heart of Washington by an Iranian operative, Mansour Arbabsiar. It was directed against Saudi Ambassador Adel A. al-Jubeir and included an attempt to blow up another foreign embassy, most recently identified as that of Israel.
Iran's rogue and dangerous behavior is of great concern not just for Israel, but to the Middle East as a region and the international community as a whole. Iran has proved its willingness to perpetrate terrorist attacks around the world by repeatedly targeting Iranian opposition members, foreign diplomats and ordinary civilians. The Iranian regime has introduced into the modern Middle East the concept of religiously sanctioned suicide terrorism. According to this extremist viewpoint, suicide is blessed and will be rewarded by Allah if it entails the killing of the enemies of Islam, be it soldiers or civilians. This suicide terrorism, combined with Tehran's growing nuclear program and reckless mindset, should be taken very seriously. So too, Venezuela's assistance to the ayatollah regime is gravely irresponsible and dangerous and should not simply be dismissed. The citizens of the United States, and especially South Florida, should be aware of this growing, ominous alliance and take proactive measures to prevent this very clear and present danger to America's vital interests.
This is yet another reason why the insidious Obama defense cuts known as sequestration, which promote the hollowing of our military capacity and capability, are ill-conceived, dangerous and unconscionable. Our economic interests are protected by a strong military, which we need now more than ever.
Rep. Allen B. West is a Florida Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee.
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