The US and Iran started this year exchanging blows, with the US killing a senior Iranian commander and Tehran firing ballistic missiles at US troops in Iraq.
Neither side has escalated tensions further, but Iran’s sprawling network of proxies and assets has raised concern it could strike US interests around the world.
The US and others have accused Iran and Hezbollah of involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, which killed 85 people, and the 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people.
Officials and experts say Iran has loose ties to drug cartels and money launderers. One regional expert described the possibility they will use these connections to launch an attack on Americans in the region as „very low.“
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In the days since Iran fired ballistic missiles at bases used by US forces in Iraq in response to the US killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, both Washington and Tehran appear to have stepped back from the edge of war.
But there are still concerns Tehran could harm US interests elsewhere around the world. That includes Latin America, where the US has tracked Iran and its proxies, particularly Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, for some time.
With escalation in the Middle East seemingly halted, „I imagine the Iranians will soon begin their real retaliation,“ said Fernando Cutz, who worked for the National Security Council during the Trump and Obama administrations, focusing on Latin America.
„The real retaliation will be taking place in the shadows, not in open battlefields. This is both a space that the Iranians tend to thrive in, and one that allows them a cloak of deniability,“ Cutz, now a senior associate at The Cohen Group, told Business Insider in an email. „The Iranians have spent decades building capacity to fundraise and to strike in many corners of the world, including Latin America.“
Foto: A Hezbollah member at a televised speech by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in Nabatiyeh, May 24, 2015.sourceREUTERS/Ali Hashisho
In its 2018 report on terrorism, the US State Department said Hezbollah that year had „continued its long history of activity in the Western Hemisphere,“ including its use of financiers operating in the tri-border area where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet.
It operates there mainly using „loose connections with low-level merchants of Syrian and Lebanese origin,“ Fernando Brancoli, a professor of international security at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, told World Politics Review in September.
Hezbollah in South America doesn’t have an organized structure, and while it uses contacts in the area for money laundering or smuggling, that doesn’t generate significant revenue, Brancoli said.
Right-wing leaders, especially in Brazil and Argentina, have been more willing to act against Hezbollah at US behest, but the Trump administration has pushed for more, even proposing Israel provide training and equipment.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in February 2019 that Hezbollah has „active cells“ in Venezuela and throughout South America, and the US government has accused Venezuelan officials, including former Vice President Tareck El Aissami, of ties to Hezbollah, though public evidence for claims is considered thin.
Foto: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meet in Caracas, July 20, 2019.sourceMiraflores Palace via REUTERS
At a counterterrorism conference in Buenos Aires last summer, Pompeo pointed to „Iran-backed Hezbollah“ as a particular threat in Latin America.
Pompeo’s visit coincided with the 25th anniversary of the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, which killed 85 people and for which the US and others in the region blame Iran and Hezbollah. The group was also behind a 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people.
Hezbollah has been accused working with Mexican cartels to traffic drugs, launder money, and in a poorly conceived attempt to hire the Zetas cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC. (People in the US have also been charged with providing financial and material support to Hezbollah.)
Speaking to reporters in October, Adm. Craig Faller, head of US Southern Command, which is responsible for US military operations in South America, named Iran alongside Russia and China as „malign actors“ working against long-term stability in the region.
„We know there’s a significant Lebanese Hezbollah presence through the region with connections back to Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran,“ Faller said. „Some of that is long-term … ties, but some of it, there’s some financing that goes on. We’re not complacent about that, and we’re continuing to monitor it.“
A real presence but low risk
Foto: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a ceremony in memory of the victims of the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) community center, in Buenos Aires, July 19, 2019.sourceNatacha Pisarenko/Pool via REUTERS
But the presence of Hezbollah and by extension Iran in Latin America is largely limited to that kind of financial and logistical activity, and for that reason, as well as the present circumstances, there is doubt that Tehran will use Latin America as a venue for active attacks agains the US, its partners, and their interests.
„I would imagine that the Iranians will be careful to not escalate this situation to the point of war,“ Cutz said, „but they will likely increase the tempo of their decades-long ongoing targeting of Americans, American facilities, American interests, and American allies all over the world, including in Latin America.“
The chance Iran or a proxy will carry out an attack „that causes significant casualties or property damage is very low,“ James Bosworth, founder of political-risk firm Hxagon and an expert on the region, wrote in a newsletter Thursday.
Tehran has increased its diplomatic and economic ties to Latin America since the 1990s, and Hezbollah has trafficking and money-laundering operations in the region, Bosworth wrote. Those operations have included weapons trafficking, which means they may have access to firearms and explosives.
Foto: Firemen and policemen search for wounded people after a bomb exploded at the Argentinian Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, July 18, 1994.sourceALI BURAFI/AFP via Getty Images
But Iran doesn’t want to anger countries in Latin America, and there’s no public evidence of Iran having significant capabilities or intent to conduct an attack in the region since 1994, Bosworth wrote, adding that anything Iran or its proxies do attempt in the region is likely to be very narrowly focused against the US.
„The evidence of Iran and its various proxies having a presence and doing bad things in [Latin America] is real,“ Bosworth wrote. „Still, in spite of all of Iran’s activities, that sort of presence doesn’t signal a plan for terrorism.“
Iran’s purported links to the Maduro government in Venezuela would likely mean Colombia – a close US ally and longtime foe of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez – is high on the list of potential targets, but such a threat seems low, according to Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political-risk consulting firm in Bogotá.
Iran would likely attack targets where the US interest is more direct, and attacks in Colombia would be seen there as attacks on Colombia, Guzman told Business Insider on Thursday, adding that „there is little to gain by them targeting government assets or even military targets.“
„Although the proxies have low capability in Venezuela, which focuses on sanctions evasion and money laundering, their capability (especially their military [capability]) in Colombia is very limited,“ Guzman said.