- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The House will consider bipartisan legislation that aims to push the State Department to adopt a more vigilant posture toward Iran’s activities in Latin America.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee passed “The Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012” Wednesday.

The legislation, which has 73 co-sponsors, would require the State Department to compile a detailed report on the activities of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite Qods Force as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Latin America.

“With tensions building between Iran and the United States over their (Iran’s) nuclear ambitions and erratic behavior, we have a responsibility to take steps now to guard against the very real threats that Iran could pose to Americans on U.S. soil,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, South Carolina Republican and the bill’s chief sponsor.

“Congress is recognizing the seriousness of the threat,” Mr. Duncan said.

The bill notes that Iran has established 11 embassies in Latin America, up from six in 2005, and that the Islamic republic has built 17 cultural centers on the continent, as well.

Under the legislation, the State Department would be required to deliver its report to Congress within 180 days, along with a “strategy to address Iran’s growing presence and activity.”

Questions about the full scope of that activity arose in October, when the Justice Department filed charges revealing a failed plot by Iranian officials to use a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington.

Last month, 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.

Democrats and most policy analysts have remained skeptical, and have cautioned against framing Iran as a global bogeyman amid increased tensions between the Washington and Tehran over the Islam republic’s secretive nuclear program.

Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York, said the Iranian threat in Latin America is being overplayed by Republicans while other regional developments - such as Brazil’s surpassing this week of Britain as the world’s sixth-largest economy - are being ignored.

“It’s perverse that the U.S. Congress and the Republican presidential candidates are focused almost exclusively on the Iranian threat in the limited discussions they have on Latin America,” he said. “It smacks of the classic Cold War backyardism.”

The legislation, Mr. Sabatini said, could remedy the situation by “establishing some sort of credible consensus voice that adds a level of clarity and evidence to this debate.”

House Democrats appear to agree: Five are listed among the bill’s co-sponsors.

Rep. Brian Higgins of New York, the bill’s lead Democratic co-sponsor, appeared on the House floor Tuesday to rally support.

“We’ve heard from experts who testified that Hezbollah, which is a terrorist proxy for Iran, Syria, and Venezuela, has an active membership in 14 North American cities,” Mr. Higgins said. “Some dismiss this concern by saying their activities are limited to fundraising.”

“This is not comforting,” he said.

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