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Iran reaches out to Mexico

After strengthening ties with other Latin American countries, Iran pushes for closer ties with Mexico.

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."

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