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U.S. fears threat in Iran's presence in Latin America

| Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, 9:26 p.m.

When President Obama signed into law the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act in late December, the United States was quickly criticized for being stuck in the past.

The law was the White House's most public strategy to date to counter Iran's influence in the Americas and gives the State Department 180 days to draw up a plan to “address Iran's growing hostile presence and activity.” The United States received prompt criticism from Iran who said the nation “still lives in the cold war era and considers Latin America as its back yard.”

“It is an overt intervention in Latin American affairs,” said Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, quoted in Al Jazeera.

Iran is increasingly isolated as it forges ahead with a nuclear program that has raised alarm across the globe. Iran says its nuclear development is for civilian purposes, like energy, while many international observers believe it is working toward creating a nuclear weapon.

In the same time period, Iran's growing influence in Latin America, especially within Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, has generated suspicion among those who worry that, at worst, Lebanon-based Hezbollah and supporters in Iran seek to attack the United States from south of the American border. Many have called on the United States to prioritize this new international threat.

But Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University in New York, notes some parallels with the 1950s, when many American politicians saw a “communist under every bed,” he says. “Now they see an Iranian under every bed.”

Sick said the signing of the act does not mean that the United States has ramped up its view of Iran's capabilities in Latin America, but that, as in the cold war, to vote “against security” is politically untenable.

The new law, which was passed late last year, calls upon the United States to create a “comprehensive government-wide strategy to counter Iran's growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere by working together with United States allies and partners in the region.”

In Latin America that includes a “multiagency action plan” which calls for the United States and partners in the region to create “a counterterrorism and counter-radicalization plan to isolate Iran.” In Mexico and Canada, specifically, the United States aims to tighten border control with its counterparts with an eye toward evading an Iranian security threat.

Iran, under international sanctions for its nuclear program, has bolstered its relationship with leaders in Latin America in recent years. Perhaps most worrisome has been the friendship between Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has led a regional group of anti-American leaders who have developed stronger ties with Iran.

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