Shadow Government

Iran in Latin America is no laughing matter

On his current tour of Latin American outliers, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stopped in Venezuela this week to share a belly-laugh with his compañero Hugo Chávez over the supposed nuclear threat either of their countries poses to the civilized world.

Gesticulating outside the presidential palace, Chávez said, "That hill will open up and a big atomic bomb will come out," with Ahmadinejad adding that any bomb they would build together would be fueled by "love."

A couple of real cut-ups.

While their mockery should fall flat amongst most sober observers, the fact remains that much of Washington is still unable to grasp the nature and dimensions of the Iranian threat in Latin America.

For example, elsewhere on this site, Michael Shifter, a perceptive analyst of Latin American politics, fails to contemplate the worst of Iran's intentions and argues instead that Iran hasn't managed to meet many of its economic pledges in the region, and has equally failed in making inroads with the biggest power players of the region, such as Brazil.

That, indeed, may be true, but neither is relevant to Iran's covert agenda of evading international sanctions and developing contingencies if the cold war with the United States was to suddenly turn hot.

Indeed, for the past twelve months or so, skeptics have proven more diligent in attempting to debunk reports of Iranian-Venezuelan collusion than following where the (prodigious) trail leads. The hoary "no smoking gun" is continually trotted out to summarily end any discussion.

But for anyone who cares to look, the public record is filled with more than enough information to elicit serious concern about the Iranian threat and spur demand that Washington take more concerted action. Consider just the following:

Money Laundering: Iran has already been caught evading sanctions through Venezuela when an Iranian bank in Caracas was sanctioned by the Treasury Department for providing financial services to Iran's military.

Drugs: U.S. law enforcement officials believe that a weekly commercial flight between Caracas and Tehran and Damascus (dubbed "Aero-Terror" by Brazilian intelligence because no one knows who or what are on those flights) is used to traffic illicit drugs from South America to the Middle East.

Uranium: Venezuela possesses vast amounts of uranium, primarily in the Roraima Basin along its border with Guyana. Across the border in Guyana, a Canadian company is mining uranium. On the Venezuelan side of the border, we are to believe Iran is operating a "gold mine."

Weapons: In two cases made public, ships smuggling either bomb-making equipment from Iran to Venezuela or weapons to Hezbollah from Venezuela were intercepted.

Terrorism: A member of the terrorist network plotting to detonate fuel tanks at JFK International Airport in New York in 2007 was arrested on the run to Venezuela where he planned to board a flight to Tehran. An explosive documentary, "The Iranian Threat," aired last month on Univision, presenting not only incriminating information on Venezuelan and Iranian diplomats discussing cyberattacks on sensitive U.S. computer systems (the State Department subsequently expelled the Venezuelan diplomat from the U.S., where she had been re-posted), but also compelling evidence on how young Latinos are targeted for recruitment and paramilitary training in Iran and Venezuelan camps visited by Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Colombian FARC.

Again, this is but a sliver of the information that has already been made public about Iran-Venezuela machinations. Instead of pundits pining for that "smoking gun," they should be demanding what is it that we don't know?

Thankfully, Capitol Hill is starting to get active on this issue and will press the administration for answers on these important questions when they return later this month. The White House will also likely find itself on the defensive on this issue during this election year -- and that is all to the good if it focuses policymakers minds on the problem.

And as the layers of the Iranian-Venezuelan relationship continued to be stripped away, it is a virtual certainty that even more distressing details of the threat posed to the United States will emerge. But the longer we wait, it will prove only more difficult to counteract.


Shadow Government

(Why) should America abandon Taiwan?

Taiwan's upcoming elections on January 14th look set to be a close-run thing. In the presidential contest, incumbent Ma Ying-Jeou's Kuomintang (KMT) is locked in a tight race with Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Less important than the policy specifics of who prevails is the spectacle of a lively, democratic election in a free Chinese society. Taiwanese may rightly fear China's overweening military power and growing economic leverage. But it is rulers in Beijing who will watch nervously as citizens across the Taiwan Strait who look like them, speak their language, and share their culture freely and peacefully choose their leaders.

Unlike a senior Obama administration official -- who last September used an interview with the Financial Times to inappropriately inject Washington into Taiwanese domestic politics by suggesting that the United States did not believe Tsai Ing-wen was ready to govern - most Shadow Government types presumably hold no position on who should win on January 14th. The election is an opportunity, however, to highlight a troubling argument in American foreign policy circles over whether Taiwan has become a strategic liability for the United States.

A gathering debate is underway in Washington over whether Taiwan is a spoiler, rather than a partner, in America's Asia strategy as President Obama continues the efforts of Presidents Bush and Clinton to "pivot" towards the region.

The core of this argument assumes that relations between the United States and mainland China will define the 21st century -- and that they should not be held hostage to the legacy of the civil war between Chinese Nationalists and Communists in the 1940s. Why should Washington risk its relationship with the rising superpower of 1.3 billion people over its ties to a small island nation of only 23 million, given the high military and economic stakes for the United States of a conflicted relationship with Beijing? In this view, China and America could enjoy a fruitful partnership if only the thorn in the side of the relationship posed by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan could be removed. Without arms sales, of course, Taiwan would have no choice but to rapidly accept the mainland's terms for unification, irrespective of the views of the Taiwanese people.

But arguments to let Taiwan go get strategy backwards. First, cutting off an old U.S. ally at a time of rising tensions with an assertive China might do less to appease Beijing than to encourage its hopes to bully the United States into a further retreat from its commitments in East Asia. Second, it would transform the calculus of old American allies, like South Korea and Australia, who might plausibly wonder whether the U.S. commitment to their security is as flexible as it was towards Taiwan.  

In particular, Japan, the United States' most important ally in Asia, may have few viable strategic options to maintain an independent foreign policy without a free Taiwan. As China's military power casts a growing shadow over its neighbors, Japan's capacity to maintain strategic choice may hinge on Taiwan's ability to retain autonomy from the mainland in ways that preclude a hostile China from projecting military power from Taiwan into the sea lanes that are the Japanese economy's lifeline.

Third, abandoning Taiwan would upend the calculations of new U.S. partners like India and Vietnam, whose leaders have made a bet on U.S. staying power and the associated benefits of strengthening relations with America as a hedge against China. Fourth, such preemptive surrender would reinforce what remains more a psychological than a material reality of China emerging as a global superpower of America's standing -- which it is not and may never be. Finally, and most importantly, it would resurrect the ghosts of Munich and Yalta, where great powers decided the fate of lesser nations without reference to their interests - or the human consequences of offering them up to satisfy the appetites of predatory great powers.

Taiwan's people may one day vote to reunify with (a politically liberalizing) China. The choice should be left to the Chinese and Taiwanese people, acting through legitimately elected leaders. That's why Taiwan's election this week -- made possible by a regional security environment underwritten by the United States and its allies -- is strategically significant, irrespective of who prevails.


Andrew Wong/Getty Images