What exactly does Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a leader of a secular government whose people are largely Catholic, have in common with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a leader of a nonsecular government where 90 percent of the population belongs to the Shi’a branch of Islam? The connection of one of the most divergent governments in the world with one of the most divergent governments in the Western Hemisphere can’t help but create bewilderment. This relationship, as well as a handful of others that Iran is pursuing in the region, came under question this week before a joint hearing of subcommittees of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
Congress is increasingly concerned with Iran’s growing presence in this hemisphere—clearly shown by the presence of 16 lawmakers at a Capitol Hill hearing on Tuesday. Lawmakers, alarmed by Chávez’ recent trip to Iran and Ahmadinejad’s trip to Brazil in late November, expressed apprehension about Iran’s relationships. They questioned Iran’s real motives, the impact on democracy and expressed fears of growing terrorism linkages. As mentioned in his opening remarks, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere Chairman Eliot Engel is concerned about the purpose of the relationship: “I seek to explore in this hearing whether Iran’s expanding presence in the Western Hemisphere is a threat to our region or is merely a nuisance. Is it only about expanded trade or is there something more nefarious going on? I believe it is both.”
Congress, as an oversight body, needs to ask tough questions on the link between Iran and Latin America as much remains unclear. Strong governance and transparency still lack in many parts of the region. This can provide a climate where people from outside the hemisphere—some with dubious intentions—can find opportunities to operate using extralegal means.
Republicans and Democrats share fears for what we do not know. Lawmakers questioned the U.S. ability to gather intelligence in the region and the inability to track who is entering and traveling within the Americas. Congressman Ed Royce voiced concern about insecurity as he quoted testimony from a previous hearing by Charles Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Shapiro had said that the only person who couldn’t get a Venezuelan passport was himself. Rep. Royce also commented on the easy linkage between drug smuggling and money laundering operations, which, when combined with the narcotics trade, provide a technical means for Middle East-based terrorist groups to arm and finance global operations.
Four of the five witnesses questioned by Chairman Gary Ackerman responded that Venezuela was their chief hemispheric concern when it comes to Iran extending its influence. But what, if anything, can Members of Congress do to confront the situation? Raising awareness and holding the U.S. administration more accountable helps. But it will take increased vigilance by the Obama administration before Congress can lessen its concern for this growing relationship.
*Brian Wanko is a guest blogger to americasquarterly.org. He is Director of Government Relations for the Council of the Americas in WashingtonDC.