Op-Ed: The long arm of Iran endangers Israel and the West

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Iran targeted Argentina’s Jews in a horrific car bomb attack 16 years ago. Now, as Tehran infiltrates Latin America, its aim is broader — the Western Hemisphere.

Iran, tahe world’s largest and most successful state sponsor of terror, has gotten away with one of its most brazen and deadly acts for too long. On July 18, 1994, a bomb blew apart the AMIA (Argentina-Israelite Mutual Association) building in Buenos Aires. The blast killed 85 and wounded 300.

Symbolically, the damage was far greater as the building was home to the heart of the largest Jewish community in Latin America.

It is commonly accepted knowledge that Tehran was behind the attack. And in recent years, an Argentine prosecutor released a report detailing Iranian involvement and issued international arrest warrants for various Iranian leaders and a top Hezbollah official.

According to the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, the prosecutor’s report concluded the primary reason that Argentina was the chosen target was the “government’s unilateral decision to terminate the nuclear materials and technology supply agreements that had been concluded some years previously between Argentina and Iran.” Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and its capacity for vendettas goes back many years.

It is easy to dismiss this act of barbarism. After all, in the intervening years, the world has seen far more dramatic acts of terror. But we forget, and stand idle, at our peril.

Let us remember that prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Iranian terrorist arm, Hezbollah, had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group in the world. Iran is lurking at our doorstep. And without some serious attention to the perils posed by Tehran, pretty soon it will come crashing through our door.

By forging new and successful alliances in Latin America, most notably with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, Tehran has gained an advantage it has never before enjoyed — proximity to the United States.

Iran exports a brand of hate that does not only target America or Jews. Iran has declared war on women, homosexuals, political opponents, even fellow Muslims who do not follow its extremist agenda and convoluted worldview. Its unrelenting quest to develop nuclear weapons, its blatant and wanton disregard of U.N. sanctions, and its constant threats against Israel make Iran potentially the most destabilizing force in the world today.

So far, Tehran has only managed to charm the most unstable of nations; those seeking to burnish their international bona fides by speaking out against the United States. But in many ways, that is what makes these alliances even more dangerous. Tehran can easily exploit regional grudges to import non-regional conflicts to the hemisphere. Using its petro-dollars, Iran lavishes contracts across Latin America to foster good will and generate revenue in nations badly in need of a positive economic infusion.

At a U.S. Senate Armed Services hearing last year, the commander of U.S. forces in Latin America, Adm. James Stavridis testified that “We have seen in Colombia a direct connection between Hezbollah activity and the narco-trafficking activity.” Not only is Hezbollah active in the hemisphere, but it has learned the drug trade and can now exploit those dangerous channels and connections at will.

Iran opened six embassies across Latin America in a five-year period. It is successfully infiltrating the hemisphere. Stavridis described Tehran’s efforts in the region as “proselytizing and working with Islamic activities throughout the region.”

The greater the role Iran plays in Latin America, the more it undermines any positive influence of such regional groups as the Organization of American States and international groups such as the United Nations.

Law enforcement experts have determined that Hezbollah also was responsible for the 1992 truck bomb attack on Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 and wounded 242. As Iran has demonstrated since these two deadly attacks in Argentina, it has a deep understanding of the complexities of Latin America and can exploit regional differences to destabilize ties and build new and dangerous alliances. It has done that in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

This axis presents an unmistakable danger to democracies in the hemisphere.

The poorest and most disenfranchised people in many Latin American nations are ripe for Hezbollah recruiting. It is not difficult to envision a Hezbollah network made up of locals in many parts of the hemisphere. These recruits, with their language and familiarity of local customs, could easily fly below the radar of security watch dogs in plots against nearby democratic nations.

Argentina was Iran’s first target in the hemisphere. We cannot assume it will be the last. Let us finally learn the dire lesson from the Hezbollah attacks on Buenos Aires, gather like-minded democratic nations together, and demonstrate the value of positive alliances on political, social and economic grounds.

Daniel S. Mariaschin is the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.