Standing before the audience of more than 13,000 people who attended AIPAC’s policy conference last week, President Obama stressed that an Iranian nuclear weapon posed a threat of the highest order.

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“A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States,” he said, a line that earned him not only a standing ovation from the crowd, but the lead of a Tom Friedman column.

Following the AIPAC speech, Friedman wrote in The New York Times: “The only question I have when it comes to President Obama and Israel is whether he is the most pro-Israel president in history or just one of the most.”

Obama also offered, at AIPAC and elsewhere, a string of reasons for concern. They range from sparking an arms race in the Middle East to the disruption of the world’s energy supply to passing nuclear material to a terrorist group or to at the very least giving them a protective shield for increasing that terrorist activity.

These arguments, though, often come across as cerebral and distant threats to the American public. But on Tuesday a member of the US military was raising another concern on Capitol Hill: Iran’s increasing influence in Latin America, a base that is decidedly closer to the US homeland.

As Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the US Southern Command, noted, it is also a region where Tehran has a growing diplomatic presence and its proxies Hizbullah and Hamas are exploiting ties to drug cartels to find sources of revenue, launder money and carry out other nefarious activities.

Planning and executing terror attacks, in either South or North America, aren’t out of the question. And Iran’s military relationship with Venezuela also poses proliferation challenges, among other issues.

Fraser’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee is just the latest in a string of statements from inside and outside of the government, from Democrats and Republicans alike, about Iran’s role in the Western Hemisphere.

In addition to several other hearings that have focused on the issue, a bill is now making its way through Congress which would require the administration to report on the state of Iran’s activities in South America. Meanwhile, think tanks and advocacy groups are touching on the issue with increasing frequency, often with the implication that an Iranian reach into Latin America brings the United States itself within ever closer range.

There are, of course, still differences of opinion about how seriously to take this role and what its policy implications are. The American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies have issued dueling reports on the topic. Predictably, the AEI study raises the alarm while the CSIS take on it cautions against over-estimating the threats.

Whatever the shoe size, the cumulative effect of this flurry of focus on Iran’s toehold in the hemisphere makes the link between Iran and America much closer than the 10,000-kilometer gap across an ocean would suggest. That makes the threat a more present danger for Americans, who might otherwise assume the risk is far from US shores. That in turn will affect the debate that surrounds what action to take.

- Hilary Leila Krieger

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