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State Department to assess Iran’s threats in the Americas

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2013

State Department officials this week said they will develop for Congress an assessment of Iranian-related threats in Central and South America, as required by a new law.

"Iran has serially defied the will of the international community and is a state sponsor of terrorism," State Department spokesman Peter Velasco told The Washington Times. "We are fully aware that its presence in the [Western] hemisphere could have implications for our security and that of our neighbors."

President Obama signed the "Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act" into law on Dec. 28.

It gives the secretary of state 180 days to provide Congress with an assessment of Iranian activities in the hemisphere, and calls on the State Department to lead the creation of a "comprehensive government-wide strategy to counter Iran's growing hostile presence and activity," primarily in Latin America.

Such a strategy involves working with U.S. allies in the region to deter threats posed by "the Government of Iran, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRGC's Qods Force, and Hezbollah," the Lebanese militant group backed by Iran.

Mr. Velasco said department officials "are in the process of reviewing the law and its requirements" and "will develop an implementation plan that is consistent with the law and our foreign policy objectives in the region."

Concern over Iranian activities in the Americas mounted in October 2011, when the Justice Department filed charges that revealed a failed plot by Iranian officials to use a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington.

Lawmakers expressed more concern in February, when Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told a Senate committee that Iran could try to launch terror attacks against targets inside the United States if it feels threatened.

Sponsored by Rep. Jeff Duncan, South Carolina Republican, legislation for the new law quickly picked up bipartisan support. Rep. Brian Higgins of New York was the bill's chief Democratic co-sponsor.

But many Democrats and most policy analysts have voiced skepticism about some of the law's claims, and cautioned against too eagerly framing Iran as a global bogeyman amid increased tensions between Washington and Tehran over the Islam republic's secretive nuclear program.

The law asserts that Iran has established 11 embassies in Latin America, up from six in 2005, and that the Islamic republic has built 17 cultural centers in the Western Hemisphere.

"Reports of Iranian intelligence agents being implicated in Hezbollah-linked activities since the early 1990s suggest direct Iranian government support of Hezbollah activities in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, and in the past decade, Iran has dramatically increased its diplomatic missions to Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil," the law states.

It also states that "Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies with a presence in Latin America have raised revenues through illicit activities, including drug and arms trafficking, counterfeiting, money laundering, forging travel documents, pirating software and music, and providing haven and assistance to other terrorists transiting the region."

The law's passage can be explained in part by a desire on both sides of the aisle for a more organized government effort to assess the legitimacy of such claims and devise a clear strategy for addressing them.

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