Why Congress suddenly cares about Iran threat in L. America

Tehran-Caracas link could prove an important issue on which to challenge Obama’s overall military record.

Ahmadinejad and Chavez 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ahmadinejad and Chavez 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What is driving the sudden Congressional interest in Iran and the Western Hemisphere? A closer look reveals a complex set of overlapping non-partisan security concerns and partisan political interests are at play.
In mid-January, US Representative Jeff Duncan (R-South Carolina) introduced HR 3783 – Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012. The bill requires the “United States to use all elements of national power to counter Iran’s growing presence and hostile activity in the Western Hemisphere.”
Legitimate security concerns have garnered bipartisan support for the bill, which passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 7. However, as the bill moves to the House floor for a vote, it would be naïve to view politicization of this threat as solely motivated by non-partisan concerns.
With the US presidential election looming, it is no secret that Barack Obama and the Republican nominee will soon face off on a number of important domestic and foreign policy issues. Republicans look ready to challenge Obama on a host of issues, including energy security, foreign policy and the defense budget. If the Republicans can successfully link the Iranian threat in Latin America to these larger issues, a public debate on Iran in the Americas could prove particularly useful in their campaign to unseat Obama.
One political issue that deeply divides Republicans and the Obama administration is energy security. Conservatives argue that Obama has failed to promote energy security and properly balance national security interests against environmental concerns. They cite the administration’s obstruction of offshore drilling and delay of the Keystone XL Pipeline as case and point.
As a consequence, the Keystone XL Pipeline Project has emerged as a political issue. Republican leaders condemn the administration on the pipeline decision; saying it will cost American jobs, undermine economic growth and jeopardize US energy security. Conservatives also assail the administration for negatively impacting US-Canada relations.
On the campaign trail, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney leverages the pipeline as part of his assault on the administration: “If the president actually thinks that construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the national interest, he should explain his position publicly instead of saying one thing to the American people and another in the back rooms on Capitol Hill.”
As the Duncan bill has gathered momentum, Conservatives have started to argue an explicit link between the Keystone XL Pipeline Project and Iranian threats in the Western Hemisphere. This was captured in a recent op-ed by Senator Richard G. Lugar.
In the piece, Lugar argues that the Iran- Venezuela axis provides a strong national security justification for construction of the pipeline. He reasons that the Keystone XL Pipeline mitigates the serious threat posed by the Iran-Venezuela axis should Caracas cut energy supplies to Gulf Coast refineries during an Iran-US or Iran-Israel conflict: “The Administration has paid little attention to Venezuela’s tightening links with Iran and the consequences for US security. The most glaring recent example is President Obama’s cavalier decision last year to delay construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.... If Iran were to close the Strait of Hormuz in a conflict, global oil prices would skyrocket.
“Venezuela supplies about 10 percent of current US imports of crude oil and petroleum products. In a scenario where the Strait is closed, a coordinated shutdown of Venezuela’s oil to the United States would be a double blow to the United States.”
Lugar’s assessment therefore provides Republicans with a roadmap to link the Iranian threat in Latin America to a wider range of non-security issues, including economic growth, job creation and energy policy. Iranian interests in Latin America could thus serve as a useful data points in these interrelated policy debates.
The GOP and Obama administration also are in serious disagreement over the state of US diplomatic engagement in Latin America and Obama’s broader foreign policy qualifications.
Conservatives argue that Latin Americans’ perception of Obama should not be the benchmark by which US foreign policy in the region should be evaluated. On the larger record, they believe the administration has failed to properly advance US national interests in Latin America and beyond.
Conservatives, such as Emilio T. Gonzalez, rail against what they see as the Obama administration’s failure to properly prioritize Latin America: “US policy and influence in Latin America is in turmoil. After being elected, President Obama was expected to bring the United States closer to Latin America through renewed engagement based on mutual respect. Overtures were made but not reciprocated. The advancement of United States interests in the region has thus been less than stellar.”
According to Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation, the Obama administration’s inability to curb drug violence in Mexico and Central America, secure Brazilian support on Syria and Iran, respond forcefully to threats to democracy throughout the region, counter Hugo Chavez with more aggressive public diplomacy and trade initiatives, and secure sufficient support from Democrats on the Colombian and Panamanian Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) have left the incumbent open to political attack: “These issues provide a lot of loose ammunition for Conservatives to fire back at the Administration in the general election.”
This has made its way to the campaign trail, where Romney has been promoting his Campaign for Economic Opportunity in Latin America. Under this plan, “in his first 100 days, Mitt Romney will launch a vigorous public diplomacy and trade promotion effort in the region – the Campaign for Economic Opportunity in Latin America (CEOLA) – to extol the virtues of democracy and free trade and contrast them with the ills of the model offered by Cuba and Venezuela.”
One therefore cannot underestimate the importance of the Iran-Venezuela Axis to the GOP. Without the Iranian connection, Latin American foreign policy would only be an electoral priority of a small group of voters, primarily Hispanics in Florida and the border states. With the Iran-Venezuela Axis, Conservatives can forge an “interconnected narrative” that broadens support for a stronger foreign policy in Latin America by linking it to US efforts to counter the country’s biggest concern: Iran.
While Conservatives generally support shrinking the US government, many oppose the administration’s proposed defense spending cuts, arguing they seriously undermine US national security. Many also disagree with the strategic shift away from fielding a military capable of simultaneously engaging and prevailing against “two capable nation-state aggressors.” Romney has voiced concerns over Obama’s defense cuts repeatedly on the campaign trail, where he says, “We simply cannot continue to cut our Department of Defense budget if we are going to remain the hope of the Earth.”
With respect to Latin America, Conservatives believe that Obama underestimates the threat posed by state and non-state actors, particularly Venezuela. In the words of Roger Noriega, “US Latin America policy... is dangerously out of touch with the grave and growing threats in our own neighborhood.”
Such opposition provides a platform to criticize the administration’s decision to cut $13 million a year for the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), failure to “ask the Intelligence Community to increase its (LatAm) capabilities,” and overall defense policy approach in the Western Hemisphere.
Conservatives therefore will see the new CSIS recommendation that the “United States should improve intelligence collection to obtain a clearer picture of Iran’s hemispheric activities” as further validation of these concerns.
If Iranian connections remain a cause for concern, Conservatives will benefit from encouraging public debate on the issue. If they can play up the regional threat posed by Iran in the run-up to the election, the Tehran-Caracas link could prove an important issue on which to challenge Obama’s overall military record.
The writer is a freelance correspondent who writes regularly for Al Jazeera English, The Diplomat, and ISN Insights.