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Dragging Latin America into the US-Iran proxy war

Buenos Aires' decision to put Hezbollah on a special terrorist list could have unpredictable consequences
Argentinian President Mauricio Macri speaks on the 25th anniversary of an attack against the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in Buenos Aires on 18 July (AFP)

It took 25 years for Argentina to freeze Hezbollah’s assets and put the Lebanese group on a terror list for the July 1994 attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), in which 85 people died. 

While many in Argentina consider Iran and Hezbollah to be responsible for this, and for a previous 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, the decision was not judicial, but political, based on a series of decrees issued by Mauricio Macri’s government. 

In the last 25 years, the only people found guilty in court were several Argentinean state officials who attempted to torpedo the investigation. It was no coincidence that last month’s decision coincided with a visit to Argentina by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for a counterterrorism conference.  

Regional repercussions

The move reveals the emergence of a new scenario in the US-Iran conflict, as the US attempts to drag Latin American countries into a proxy war against Tehran and its ally, Hezbollah. But Argentina’s unprecedented step could have unexpected consequences, especially at the regional level.

For decades, the US has considered the alleged presence of Hezbollah networks in Latin America as a security threat, with a special focus on the financial hub of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

While Iran had developed better relations with leftist Latin American governments in recent decades - including Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina - the recent shift towards right-wing governments has thrown a wrench into the works.

Hezbollah's inclusion in the terror list creates new momentum in what has always been a politicised investigation

The renewed focus on Hezbollah in Latin America follows the US decision last year to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and to impose new sanctions.

Last October, the US passed into law new measures targeting Hezbollah, and in April, the US offered a $10m reward for information on the group’s finances. In January, Pompeo linked Venezuela’s crisis to Hezbollah’s presence, citing “an obligation to take down that risk”.

Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, has aligned with the Trump administration in linking Hezbollah with terrorism and antisemitism, while receiving the Champion of Democracy Award from the American Jewish Committee in Washington.

Financing Hezbollah

In the last 20 years, security analysts, intelligence agencies and pseudo-academic literature have continuously warned of the growing presence of Hezbollah in Latin America, alongside groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, often with little evidence. Quoting secret dossiers or intelligence information, media has been useful in spreading this idea.

In recent years, Foreign Policy has published several articles on Hezbollah’s finances abroad and the need to eradicate its presence in Latin America. In May, the New York Times published a piece, based on a secret dossier, about a former Venezuelan vice president who allegedly aided Hezbollah operatives. At the same time, neoconservative groups have been lobbying for years to put Hezbollah on the Trump administration’s agenda. 

People hold pictures of the victims of the 1994 AMIA bombing during a commemoration in Buenos Aires on 18 July (Noticias Argentinas/AFP)
People hold pictures of the victims of the 1994 AMIA bombing during a commemoration in Buenos Aires on 18 July (Noticias Argentinas/AFP)

When it comes to Iran’s involvement in the AMIA case, Interpol in 2007 issued a red notice against several Iranians and Lebanese sought by Argentina. In 2015, prosecutor Alberto Nisman publicly accused then-president Kirchner of colluding with Iran to cover up its role in the bombing. He was found dead on the eve of his testimony four days later. Argentinean society is still divided over the case. 

Hezbollah’s inclusion in the terror list creates new momentum in what has always been a politicised investigation, mixed with global geopolitical interests. The Argentinean decrees closely follow the US agenda against Iran and Hezbollah, by focusing on terrorist financing within the country and allowing authorities to freeze the assets of those related to the group.

This is an unprecedented step for a region with a strong presence of Arab and Jewish communities. While some Argentinians might be concerned, it’s unlikely that the terrorist designation will make the country a possible target for retaliation - but it has certainly aligned Argentina with one side of the conflict, and could damage its relations with the Lebanese government.

New war on terror

Another potential consequence could be a domino effect throughout the region, spurred on by US and Israeli pressure in that direction. Pompeo expressed optimism that other countries may follow suit in declaring Hezbollah a terrorist group, while Almagro suggested that other states should indeed do the same. 

Countries already in the US and Israeli zone of influence, such as Brazil, Paraguay and parts of Central America, could be the first to follow. The Argentinean move could mark the dawn of an updated version of the war on terror, with a special focus on Iran and its allies. 

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The Hezbollah designation could also have enormous consequences for all Arab Latin American communities, in terms of stigmatisation. Last November, two Lebanese brothers in Argentina were accused of being members of Hezbollah, after a tip from a local Jewish organisation. They were released after 22 days without charges.

Meanwhile, for some of the families of the AMIA victims, the decrees were not a well-received 25th anniversary gift, but rather an attempt to hide Argentinian authorities' misconduct over the last quarter-century.

For many Argentineans, there is no doubt that their country has become a new stage in the global US-Israeli confrontation against Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Massimo Di Ricco
Massimo Di Ricco is a professor at the Universidad del Norte of Barranquilla (Colombia), a news commentator, and journalist who contributes to several publications on the Middle East, Latin America, media and global politics.