The world community is waiting in anticipation to see the next American president's stance on confronting Iran’s nuclear threat. Yet it appears that Tehran has decided not to wait and has moved on its own to develop a means of attacking the US from its own backyard.
While the Latin American Left has consistently complained about North American interference in Venezuela's domestic affairs, it has completely ignored the dangerous infiltration of Iran's radical regime.
Over the past six years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has allowed Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to increasingly meddle in his country's affairs. Putting Venezuela at the center of a new, troublesome initiative, shaping Latin America's future is part of Iran's strategic gamble against the West.
Traditionally considered a "zone of peace," Latin America is mutating into a new sanctuary for those who sympathize with radical Islam.
Hugo Chávez opened Latin America's doors to Iran's fundamentalist regime, sealing the alliance through 11 meetings with Ahmadinejad and visiting Tehran on six occasions since assuming power. Chávez is a principal champion of Iran's nuclear ambitions and has routinely supported radical groups in the Middle East, even calling Israel's 2006 military offensive in Lebanon a "new Holocaust." But Chávez has not only supported extremist ideologies far from his own country, as some unscrupulous politicians have done in the past: he has woven these movements directly into the Venezuelan landscape.
One of those groups is Hizbullah-Venezuela, which has grown by taking advantage of the discontent and marginalization of indigenous communities. The vacuum that was created after Chávez expelled Christian Evangelicals from the country is used by Hizbullah to indoctrinate the Indian community of Wayuu-Guagira.
One of its leaders, ex-Marxist Teodoro Rafael Darnot, now claims to bring about the kingdom of God in Venezuela through his activities, and works with the Chavez government. The motto appearing on Hizbullah-Venezuela's website states: "The brief enjoyment of life on earth is selfish. The other life is better for those who follow Allah." While Venezuela remains a Christian cultural zone, the government's cooperation with Iran reflects strategic desires, and does not reflect any Venezuelan demographic change.
Iranian threat growing far broader than Mideast
Last November Chávez proposed to his "ideological friend" Ahmadinejad a plan to build a joint "anti-imperialist" army to fight the “Great Satan” and defend the nations from a possible US attack. He also called Iran "a friend to trust" during the sixth Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas summit (ALBA) that took place in Caracas. During the summit, Chávez praised Ahmadinejad's promises to share Iranian scientific developments with Latin America. They also agreed to invest billions of dollars in every country that cuts its ties with the US. "This fund, my brother," Chávez said, "will become a mechanism for liberation."
Confirming the foreseeable repercussions that such statements may trigger, journalist Patricia Poleo reported on July 9 that Venezuelans of Arab ancestry are being recruited under the auspices of Tarek el Ayssami, Venezuela's vice-minister of the interior, for combat training in Hizbullah camps in south Lebanon.
These developments imply a serious shift of alliances in Latin America. Iran and Hizbulllah are now present in the Tri-Border Area that binds Puerto Iguazu (Argentina) Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) and Foz do Iguacu (Brazil); They operate at Maicao in Colombia, in Margarita Island in Venezuela, at Monkey Point in Nicaragua as well as in Bolivia and Ecuador. Chávez's sympathy toward the leftist terrorist group FARC is switching to radical organizations of Islamic backgrounds.
Leftist radical groups are realizing that, after all, their goals are not much different to the ones proposed by Islamic fanatical organizations, and are ready to leave their communist façade and adopt a set of beliefs seemingly in total contradiction to their former causes as long as they provide them the elements and means to overthrow democratic societies.
As a result of North American inattention to its own hemisphere, Iran is finding a new proxy for its global aspirations; without the need to “export” any terrorists, Iran is growing them on Latin American soil. Ahmadinejad has traveled to Latin America three more times than Bush has, leading some Latin American countries to seek a separate accommodation with Iran.
The Iranian threat is growing far broader than the Middle East and will be at the forefront of the next US Administration, no matter which government gets elected. Iran's sphere of influence is systematically filling the gap wherever liberal democracies are leaving a vacuum, be it Gaza, Lebanon, or Venezuela. Unless there is an active policy to counter Iranian strategy, the so- called axis of evil may gain a new member: Venezuela.
Gabriel Calabrese is completing his studies in international relations and Latin American studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Calabrese is doing a traineeship at the Foreign Ministry of Israel and is currently in Washington, D.C. where he is completing an internship at The Israel Project, a strategic communications organization