Netanyahu’s Latin America trip: Another chance to talk about Iran

Especially in Latin America, Iran is the elephant in the room

SUPPORTERS OF Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah display Hezbollah and Lebanese flags in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
SUPPORTERS OF Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah display Hezbollah and Lebanese flags in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu’s Latin America trip: Another chance to talk about Iran • By EMANUELE OTTOLENGHI and MICHAELA FRAI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Latin America on Monday in a trip laden with symbolism. He boarded the first El Al flight to Argentina since 1960, when the Israeli flagship carrier brought Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from Argentina to Israel to face trial. His trip also holds great promise. Netanyahu’s pursuit of stronger relations in the region has already yielded a favorable swing in United Nations votes by numerous Latin American countries.
But the trip’s celebratory mood should not prevent Netanyahu from addressing an inconvenient truth. Israel’s newfound friends may support the Jewish state at UN forums but their countries remain safe havens for Hezbollah’s terrorism finance and Iranian influence. Netanyahu should prod Israel’s Latin American friends to combat the lawlessness and corruption that enable Hezbollah and Iran to thrive in the Western Hemisphere.
Especially in Latin America, Iran is the elephant in the room. In Buenos Aires, Netanyahu will attend events commemorating the Israeli embassy terrorist attack of 1992 and the AMIA bombing of 1994 – which together killed more than a hundred people. Both attacks bear the fingerprints of Iran and Hezbollah – and neither has seen justice done for the victims. Iran and Hezbollah’s networks in Argentina serve as a critical node in the effort to propagate antisemitic hate speech throughout the region.
The mastermind behind the 1992 AMIA bombing, Mohsen Rabbani, left numerous disciples when he fled Argentina. They continue to proselytize and sponsor trips to religious academies in Iran. Iranian emissaries, such as Rabbani’s son in law, regularly visit local universities and Islamic cultural centers to expand the growing community of local radicalized converts.
While in Buenos Aires, Netanyahu will also meet Paraguay’s president, Horacio Cartes. Cartes has turned Paraguay into a staunch friend of Israel in international forums, but his country remains a hub of Hezbollah’s terrorism finance. The US Treasury Department sanctioned Hezbollah’s numerous financial operatives and their companies in Paraguay over a decade ago, yet Paraguay has been slow to act. The 2016 US State Department annual report on terrorism notes that Paraguay has counterterrorist financing legislation and the ability to freeze without delay, and confiscate, terrorist assets.
Regardless, “there were no terrorist financing convictions or actions to freeze in 2016.” The report also notes that the Paraguay side of the border with Argentina and Brazil, also known as the Tri-Border Area, “continued to be attractive to individuals seeking to engage in terrorist financing, as the minimal police and military presence along these borders allowed for a largely unregulated flow of people, licit and illicit goods, and money.”
Much of these circumstances are the product of corruption, lax law enforcement and porous borders – all issues Netanyahu should raise with Cartes. Paraguayan officials are adamant that they would act if a request came from a third country to enforce US sanctions. Netanyahu should remind Cartes that draft US legislation to fight global Hezbollah’s terrorism finance will likely introduce penalties for states whose negligence facilitates it. That’s Paraguay.
Netanyahu should carry his warnings about Iran and Hezbollah to Colombia and Mexico too. Both countries are still struggling to confront the plague of narco-trafficking, which increasingly relies on Hezbollah to launder its revenues.
The US has long been investigating ties between terrorism finance and drug trafficking to Hezbollah fundraising activities. A perfect example is the Middle East-Latin America network run by Ayman Joumaa, a drug kingpin with Lebanese and Colombian citizenship. In 2011, Joumaa was sanctioned by the US Treasury for running a sophisticated money laundering ring and coordinating a multi-ton cocaine shipment network from Colombia to the Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel. US sanctions exposed the ring, but did not put an end to other such activities – this is an ongoing challenge, as the recent arrest of another key figure in Hezbollah’s global money laundering operations attests.
Indeed, Hezbollah and Iran’s ties to Mexican drug cartels have long been a concern of US and Israeli policy makers. With assassination plots and long-established trafficking routes, the cartels have provided a strategic “attack venue against Israeli or other Western targets.”
Colombia’s long and bloody history with the FARC has been complicated by the organization’s ties to Hezbollah as a logistics mechanism for money laundering and drug trafficking. As part of the recent peace deal with the FARC, the former guerrilla group has entered Colombia’s political sphere as a legitimate party. Many fear that such legitimization may further Hezbollah’s influence in the region. A well-established pro-Iranian network of cultural centers and radical preachers in Colombia could facilitate such development.
Netanyahu should thus seek regional cooperation to counter Iran’s and Hezbollah’s nefarious activities in Latin America. All countries in the region have seen a recent uptick in Iranian influence and terrorist activities through embassies and local Hezbollah support. Hezbollah-linked businessmen continue to act undisturbed in Chile, where Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited last year. Peru, Uruguay and Panama all recently experienced threats of Iranian-backed terrorism. The Panama case was particularly worrisome.
US law enforcement agencies recently revealed the arrest of two Hezbollah operatives, one of whom scouted targets that included the Panama Canal and the Israeli embassy. This is not just a threat to Jewish and Israeli targets.
It is a threat to local societies that requires a strong and coordinated response.
Israel and Latin America have a long history of military assistance and economic support which Netanyahu’s trip will reinforce and strengthen.
But threats posed by Iran and Hezbollah’s presence should be a priority for Netanyahu. Working together to end Iranian and Hezbollah penetration is the only way to ensure lasting regional stability and security for both Israel and its new Latin American friends.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Michaela Frai is a Research Associate.