Last month, three members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) -- Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Subcommittee Chairman Connie Mack (R- FL), and freshman member David Rivera (R-FL) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing their concern over information they had received on suspicious activity involving Argentina, Venezuela, and Iran and asking the State Department to investigate whether any nuclear cooperation is at play between the three countries.
Rather than making any serious effort to look into the matter, however, State dismissed the legislators' queries within a matter of days with a perfunctory: "We have no reason to believe that Venezuela serves as an interlocutor between Iran and Argentina on nuclear issues, nor that Argentina is granting access to its nuclear technology."
Well, the members didn't have any reason to either -- until information started to coming to light that has raised disturbing questions.
Argentina-Iran nuclear ties are nothing new, dating from the 1980s. The reactor in Tehran is largely of Argentinean design and Argentina was shipping highly enriched uranium to Iran as late as 1993. That relationship, however, ended under intense U.S. pressure in the early 1990s and seemingly was severed forever as Iran's role in the terrorist bombings against Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 came to light.
Still, Tehran never lost hope about restoring nuclear ties with Argentina and has made it a priority since. In 2009, the Iranian representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency publicly reaffirmed, "We are interested in buying [nuclear fuel] from any supplier, including Argentina."
Enter Hugo Chavez.
It's no secret that for the past several years the Venezuelan leader has been on point for expanding Iranian relations in South America, especially in Ecuador and Bolivia. Sources have told HFAC that in 2007 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personally asked Chavez to intercede with President Nestor Kirchner (the late husband of current President Cristina Kirchner) to reverse Argentine policy and once again allow Iran access to Argentine nuclear technology.
Sources have also provided information to HFAC that in February 2010 Argentine Minister of Planning and Public Works, Julio de Vido, in a meeting with Venezuelan Vice President Elias Juau, offered to share nuclear technology with the Venezuelan government, which has had a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran dating from November 2008.
In addition, HFAC possesses documents indicating a financial relationship between Venezuela, Argentina, and Iran involving transfers of up to $250 million to build some 200 "socialist factories" in Venezuela -- mainly in the food processing and industrial equipment sectors -- although no one seems to be able to locate exactly where those factories are located, if they are operating at all.
The aforementioned comes against the backdrop of constant Argentina-Iran diplomatic parrying that continues to this day about the 1990s bombings and the price of restoring relations. In this, the Kirchner government can, on the one hand, be tough in its rhetoric holding Iran accountable for the Buenos Aires attacks, only to then undercut its position by offering Tehran quasi-olive branches.
For example, this past April, the Argentinean paper Perfil, citing confidential documents, reported that in a meeting last January with Iranian ally Bashar Assad of Syria, Argentinean Foreign Minister Hector Timerman offered to drop the investigations into the Buenos Aires attacks (several Iranian officials are wanted in those attacks) in return for restoring robust Argentina-Iran economic ties (once valued at more than $1 billion). Timerman denied the report, but the resulting scandal nearly cost him his job.
Yet, last month, Timerman again waded into controversy, calling an Iranian offer to help Argentina find the "real" culprits in the Buenos Aires attacks a "very positive step forward." Such a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach on Argentina's part only creates more uncertainty as to what its true intentions are vis-à-vis Iran.
Granted, there is no smoking gun on whether Hugo Chavez is playing the middleman to real or considered nuclear exchanges between Argentina and Iran, but given the players and histories involved there is certainly room for skepticism -- and the House members have every reason, given the stakes involved, to express their concern and expect a serious examination of the matter. And they deserve better from the State Department.
In fact, State's indifference to congressional concerns about the state of affairs in the Western Hemisphere is beginning to be noticed. Over several hearings this year, State representatives have either arrived unprepared to answer substantive questions or else appeared dismissive of Members' concerns about inter-American security or threats to democracy. One can only hope that when the Obama administration names a new Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs that individual will reinstitute a healthy respect for the views and opinions of members of Congress who happen to care deeply about the region.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images