Iran-VenezuelaGlenn Greenwald has a post up at Salon bemoaning the absurdity of the Obama administration’s embrace of the notion that Iran has been planting seeds of terror throughout broader Latin America. He notes that

“For quite some time, right-wing dogma has warned that Iranian Terror is taking hold and expanding in Central and South America thanks to improving relations between Iran and several Latin American governments, as well as due to growing Hezbollah cells. In fact, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum all warned of these menaces at various points during the GOP debate, prompting a rating of “Mostly False” from PolitiFact after a detailed analysis of those claims. Like so much inane right-wing dogma, this has now been formally embraced by top-level Obama officials.”

Quoting from The Hill, Greenwald reminded his readers that “This menace, of course, was what was invoked by the laughably absurd claim that Iran’s Quds Forces had formed an alliance with Mexican drug cartels to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador on U.S. soil, and today, this fear-mongering tale got a big boost from a leading Obama official:

Tehran’s efforts to expand its circle of influence in South America is tantamount to exporting state-sponsored terrorism into the region, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

“We always have a concern about in particular the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and [their] efforts . . . to expand their influence not only throughout the Middle East but into [South America] as well,” Panetta told reporters Monday. That, in my book, that relates to expanding terrorism. And that’s one of the areas that I think all of us are concerned about,” he added.

The truth is, though, that Obama White House has long stuck to this script, going all the way back to the earliest days of its administration. Most famously, the State Department warned during the summer of 2009 that Iran was constructing a mega-embassy in Nicaragua. To be sure, as I wrote at the time,

The Iranians have made a concerted effort to establish a more robust presence in the region since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took power in 2005, largely with the encouragement of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. The Iranians have nearly doubled the number of missions in Latin America during that time, jumping into the gaping diplomatic void left from US withdrawal from the region during the George W. Bush administration, and signing numerous economic and military partnerships with its new allies.

Iran’s growing influence in the Americas has stoked fear on the part of American officials who worry that, well…it’s not clear exactly. Many point to Iran’s alleged connections to two terrorist bombings in Argentina, both of which took place over fifteen years ago. The fear, apparently, is that “in the event of a conflict with Iran… it would attempt to use its presence in the region to conduct such activities against us.”

While scenarios such as this are certainly frightening to ponder, the actual record of Iranian relations in Latin America suggests that too much credit is given to the regime in Tehran. In fact, the Ahmadinejad era has ushered in a series of diplomatic embarrassments in Latin America, and has tied Tehran to the sinking ship of Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution. Relations with Nicaragua have been especially troubled, as Tehran has begged off honoring numerous economic commitments, failed to produce the millions of dollars in investment Ahmadinejad assured his counterparts in Managua, and refuses to help the Central American country renegotiate its $160 million debt.

According to an article in today’s Washington Post, the Nicaraguans are desperate for anything from Iran. A senior economic advisor to Daniel Ortega is quoted complaining that “They haven’t invested anything. They haven’t built anything. We haven’t even been able to renegotiate the debt. They say the Koran doesn’t permit them to. We’ll have to study the Koran to see if we can find something that condones it.” If this is what passes for international relations between the two countries, American officials have nothing to fear.

The paranoia in Washington is one part Cold War residue in the logic driving US foreign policy in Latin America, two parts ignorance as to what’s actually going on in the region. The Bush administration’s antagonism and distracted attention toward relations with its southern neighbors left the United States isolated, distrusted, and largely ignorant of the political undercurrents sweeping through Latin American politics. Its decision to eschew productive engagement with the leftist governments that have taken power in recent years in favor of successive rounds of chest-thumping with Chavez created a distorted image of the region and rendered the United States prone to accepting faulty intelligence as the gospel truth.

As for the Iranian embassy Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worried over at the time? Well, it turned out not to exist.

In fact, the only sprawling embassy in Nicaragua belongs to none other than the United States. While the source of the false rumor remains unclear, the fact that it informed Secretary Clinton’s public statements on the matter is troubling. That a US diplomat in the Nicaraguan capital admitted that “There is no huge Iranian Embassy being built as far as we can tell,” (emphasis added) is more worrisome still. How hard would it be to find out?

Coming off an embarrassing and largely poor showing at the Summit of the Americas a week or so back, it strikes me that the United States should change course, and quickly. The White House would do well to concern itself with rebuilding US diplomacy in the region left ruined by Bush presidency (and which have never been properly attended to) rather than wring its hands over a phantom menace that haunts the imaginations of beltway Cold Warriors but which never materializes in the realm of the real.

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