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An on-again-off-again US official is now in the private sector, peddling documents he says proves Iran and Venezuela are in dangerous collaboration.
Editor's note: This is part of a series on the alleged spread of Islamic terror cells in Washington's "backyard." See part two here.
JERUSALEM — Is Islamic terror lapping at America's shores? Roger Noriega thinks so.
Noriega, a Kansas native and Republican diehard, is living proof that American politics affords its sons a second chance, maybe even a third.
In 1986, aged only 27, Noriega was one of several young hawks implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, a convoluted affair in which Reagan administration officials illicitly sold weapons to Iran and secretly funneled the resulting profits to Nicaraguan rebels. Congress had prohibited both actions.
Noriega lost his job over that one.
But a second chance came during the first administration of President George W. Bush, when Noriega was appointed ambassador to the Organization of American States and then, from 2003 to 2005, served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
He resigned after blistering criticism over his handling of the United States' relationship with Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, Noriega considers a hemispheric peril.
Now 53 and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Noriega runs a private outfit called Project Documents, through which he exposes documents that he claims show a treacherous and potentially dangerous collaboration between Iran and Venezuela.
In a way, Noriega is back where he was as a young man, at the murky point where Latin America, the United States and Iran meet.
Last September, Noriega presented evidence of the growing danger at a conference at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.
Noriega's principal argument is that Iran is prepping Venezuela to be its Plan B — an insurance policy — in the event of a massive, paralyzing attack on its own territory. Noriega argues that the existing infrastructure of narco-traffic is now being used to threaten the United States not only with arms and drugs, but with Islamic terror.
The idea that militant Islam is taking hold in Latin America is supported by a number of American conservatives.
"We are talking about a multifaceted threat," Noriega said in a conversation with GlobalPost after his presentation. "First and foremost, an everyday threat of narco-traffic abetted by the Venezuelan nation state and by terrorist groups. It is the simple problem caused by an alliance with a terrorist state."
"Clearly, Iranians are projecting into the Americas, pushing their asymmetrical struggle into the neighborhood of the United States. There is a clear threat of terror against US interests or allies in the Americas. And most certainly, they are planning retaliation in the event they are thwarted in their own land."
Noriega remains influential in Republican circles but his message has not yet caught fire.
In Israel, few Iran experts take the Latin American threat seriously, expressing more concern about Iran's attempts to gain traction in the Middle East itself.
South American media has shown itself somewhat more amenable to such theories, such as this one in an Argentine news site, reporting that Hugo Chavez is building drones with the assistance of Iran, China and Russia.
Two terror attacks in Buenos Aires, Argentina that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people in 1992 and 1994 are widely considered to have been planned with Iranian assistance.
Among other documents Noriega displayed to a rapt audience in Israel were photographs of an encounter between Imad Saab Saab, the Venezuelan ambassador to Syria, and his Iranian counterpart, Seyed Ahmad Mousavi, on May 5, 2010, in Damascus.
The names of the Venezuelan delegation in Damascus may themselves raise some eyebrows: accompanying Ambassador Saab were two minister counselors, Walid Yordi and Ghaze Atef.
The motive for the meeting, according to the report, was to follow-up on a previous three-way meeting between President Chavez, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
The ambassador's cable, at once alarming and disarming, rife with spelling mistakes, also includes the assessment of the ambassador of Iran, that "Bush and Obama's policies are not more than two faces of the same coin."
The authenticity of the documents Noriega presents is not in doubt, but their significance remains a matter of debate.
The motivation of those leaking the classified information, according to Noriega's colleague Martin Rodil, is "to propel the United States into involvement in the anti-Chavez movement."
"These are people who are deeply patriotic, who work in the government because that's what they've been doing all their lives and they know how deep Chavez is digging them in. They believe that thanks to [Roger Noriega’s] efforts, the United States will come some day and help them to re-establish normality. Their goal is to provoke the US into action," Rodil says.
Others, he says, are "Chavistas hedging their bets. They understand the situation and know he won't be there forever. Especially at senior levels, where the extent of his illness is known, they are thinking of what comes later."