The Trump administration’s push to counter Iran’s influence in South America won key support from leaders in the region in recent days, with three Latin American nations officially declaring Lebanon’s Tehran-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras have now officially joined with Paraguay and Argentina in recognizing the designation, with the new conservative government in Bogota joining with Washington in declaring Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization as well.
At a counterterrorism conference in Bogota this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials underscored the global reach of Lebanon-based Hezbollah — a Shia Muslim militant-political movement and a part of the Lebanese political establishment that Washington has listed as a terrorist organization since the late 1990s.
Hezbollah was a big winner in the political upheaval that has gripped Lebanon this month, with new government made up of appointees nominated by Hezbollah and its allies — a development that has worried both the U.S. and Israel, Lebanon’s neighbor. Counterterrorism analysts consider the well-armed Hezbollah one of Tehran’s most effective military proxies in the region.
Heading into this week’s conference in Bogota, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales told the Miami Herald and Nuevo Herald that U.S. officials “know that Hezbollah operatives and facilitators and finance leaders are active” in the loosely governed “Tri-Border Area” between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
U.S. and Israeli officials say Hezbollah orchestrated and executed a 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina that killed 29 people, as well as a 1994 attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that left 85 people dead.
Although those attacks came decades ago, “the threat is still very much with us,” said Mr. Sales.
Mr. Sales added that Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who has resisted U.S. and regional demands that he step down, is helping Hezbollah along with certain South America-based militant groups.
“We’re concerned that Maduro has extended safe harbor to a number of terrorist groups,” Mr. Sales said, including Hezbollah and leftist guerrilla movements ELN and the FARC in Colombia.
Mr. Pompeo highlighted the danger from Hezbollah in an interview this week with Bloomberg, asserting that the Lebanese movement has “put down roots throughout the globe and in South America.” Hezbollah, Mr. Pompeo said, is the tip of the spear in “global” terrorism activities backed by Iran.
“When folks think of Hezbollah, they typically think of Syria and Lebanon, but Hezbollah has now put down roots throughout the globe and in South America,” he said.
“When we say that Iran is the leading destabilizing force in the Middle East and throughout the world, it’s because of this terror activity that they have now spread as a cancer all across the globe,” Mr. Pompeo said. “When you see the scope and reach of what the Islamic Republic of Iran’s regime has done, you can’t forget they tried to kill someone in the United States of America. They’ve conducted assassination campaigns in Europe. This is a global phenomenon.”
The comment was an apparent reference to allegations leveled by the FBI in 2011 that Iranian operatives had plotted to assassinate then-Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in Washington.
The Obama administration faced criticism for downplaying such Iranian threats as part of its pursuit of the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran — a deal President Trump withdrew from in 2018. An investigative article by Politico claimed Obama administration officials for years blocked a major DEA probe that had uncovered evidence of Hezbollah drug-trafficking operations tied to Latin America.