SAN ANTONIO, Tex. — While U.S. leaders remain fixated on Mexico’s drug war, Iran has quietly sought to establish closer ties to Mexico, with almost no notice.
Over the last year, Iran has been pushing for an expansion of trade and diplomatic ties between the two countries.
The efforts mirror those Iran's leaders have made in Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, whose leaders employ anti-U.S. rhetoric. Iran's close relationships with those three countries have prompted alarms to ripple through the U.S. national security establishment in recent years.
Some foreign policy experts see nothing nefarious in Iran's reaching out to another oil producing state, while some counterterrorism experts believe the U.S. should be more vigilant in monitoring any Iranian attempt to establish closer ties with Mexico.
It's just too close, they argue, not to pay careful attention.
In late February, Iran’s ruling Islamic clerics quietly sent emissaries to Mexico City with a proposal to expand relations in the “political, economic and cultural arenas” for the first time since the Shah was overthrown in 1979. According to a Feb. 27 press release posted online by Mexico’s department of foreign relations, Secretary Maria Lourdes Aranda Bezaury met with Tehran’s deputy foreign minister for the Americas, Ali Reza Salari.
More meetings are planned.
The response to Iran's actions in the region weren't always so muted. Past Iranian overtures elsewhere in Latin America — most recently in Nicaragua — drew quick U.S. condemnation, along with publicly aired suspicions that Iran's motives included the desire to project a terrorism threat in America's backyard.
In contrast, Iran's outreach in Mexico has proceeded with scarcely any public mention. The overtures took place (by design or not) amid the distractions of visits to Mexico by high-ranking U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano, to discuss supporting Mexico in its war against rampaging drug cartels.
"This is the first I've probably ever heard about this," said a State Department official closely involved in bilateral diplomacy and high-level American visits to Mexico. "And to tell you the truth it's probably something that's not going to come up (during the official U.S. diplomatic visits) — unless it's somehow forced onto the agenda."
Andy Lane, a State Department spokesman in Washington D.C., appeared unaware of the Iranian proposal when a GlobalPost reporter called on the eve of Clinton's Mexico visit.
After seeking the administration's response, Lane called back: "Many countries in the hemisphere have relations with Iran, and it is their sovereign right to pursue relations with any country that they choose." Lane said he was not authorized to elaborate.
The response may reflect President Barack Obama's desire for a different approach to Iran than his predecessor. The Obama administration's approach has been marked so far by diplomatic outreach to dissuade the clerical regime from pursuing a nuclear program that Europe and many of Iran's neighbors, including Israel, fear is aimed at producing nuclear weapons.
From the perspective of the U.S., Iran is different from other countries seeking acceptance in the region.
Since Iran was tied to the 1980s bombings of a U.S. Marines barracks and an embassy complex in Beirut, every American president since Ronald Reagan has continued Iran's designation as a state sponsor of terror. And the United Nations Security Council has implemented three rounds of economic sanctions on the grounds that Iran has broken promises about its nuclear program.
Foremost on the minds of national security experts who worry about Iran's forays into Latin America are the 1992 and 1994 bombings in Argentina of a Jewish center and the Israeli embassy, which killed 115 people and wounded 500. In 2007, Argentina indicted top Iranian diplomats and government officials for conspiring with Hezbollah operatives about the bombings.
"Iran wants to expand its presence in the western hemisphere. And as the 1994 terrorist attack in Argentina confirmed, when you have Iran in your country that always means you have the Quds Force and Hezbollah, too," said Michael James Barton, until recently a White House Middle East policy advisor to the Bush administration.
Last year, the Bush administration declared Iran's paramilitary secret police force, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, a terrorist organization on grounds that its operatives used the diplomatic cover of Iran's embassy in Iraq to help insurgents kill American troops.
But not everyone sees nefarious intent in the Iranian push to build embassies through Latin America into Mexico.
Gary Sick, a Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs professor, said Iran is merely breaking its UN-imposed isolation as any persecuted country would — by reaching out to oil-producing or oil-consuming nations in Africa, India, China and, quite naturally, Latin America.
"The outreach to Mexico doesn't strike me as dramatically different from many of the things they've been doing," Sick said. "It's obviously in their interest to have relations with other oil producers."
But former intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts note that Iran is well known for using its foreign embassies as a cover for the movement of Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah operatives, as it did in Argentina.
Oliver "Buck" Revell, a retired associate deputy director in charge of FBI counterintelligence and international affairs, downplayed the threat of any direct Iranian attack mounted from Mexico.
But that doesn't mean there aren't concerns, he said. "They could create back channels and cells, get more capability, more contacts and more resources," Revell said. "There are many, many opportunities if they get a foothold in Mexico that could be harmful to both Mexico and the U.S."
For their part, Mexican government officials seemed uncharacteristically cavalier about the Iranian proposal, reflecting the Obama administration's apparent change of attitude toward Tehran. Before 1979, Mexico and Shah-era Iran had a strong relationship, as two oil producers wedded by their interests in petroleum and friendly relations with the U.S.
Since 1979, however, Mexico's relationship with Iran has dried up, partly due to Mexico's deference to its northern neighbor's feelings about Iran. Today, the Iranian mission in Mexico invites email inquiries to a hotmail account and offers phone numbers that don't work.
Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, did not respond to multiple GlobalPost interview requests. Neither did Mexico's ambassador to Iran, Carlos Tirado.
But one Mexican diplomat who requested anonymity told GlobalPost that Mexico welcomed Tehran's proposal, as it would outreach from any country. The diplomat explained that this was a new outlook based on the Obama administration's approach to Iran.
"I think the Obama administration made it very clear that they would not push other countries the way the Bush administration used to," the diplomat said.
Iran's Mexico City-stationed ambassador, Mohammad Hassan Ghariri Abyaneh, did not return repeated phone calls. But an assistant told GlobalPost that he, like President Obama next week, will be meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
The inroads may come to nothing, however. Mario Loyola, a former U.S. Senate and Pentagon advisor who is now a national security expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, predicted the Mexicans would ultimately snub the Iranian proposal.
"There just isn't any upside in the Iranian proposal for a conservative government like president Calderon's, which values its relations with the U.S. and looks at things our way," Loyola said. "The Mexicans will certainly avoid insulting the Iranians, but they will also avoid get(ting) mixed up in any sort of shady business with them. Calderon's advisors will advise him to avoid any changes in the tenor or nature of Mexican-Iranian relations."
Read more about diplomacy:
U.S. and Russia turn a corner
Land of rising communism
Obama: "America is changing"