I am pretty sure that I remain the only American reporter to have traveled to leftist President Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua to find out what the Iranian government is doing there. I apologize if I missed something out there. While I appreciated having the exclusive at the time, more than a year after my travels I continue to wonder why there there is such a persistent lack of curiosity from my mainstream press corps colleagues.
The press, quite rightly, has swarmed like migrating wildebeest all over the the Islamic Republic of Iran’s burgeoning economic and diplomatic ties to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and, to a certain degree, Iran’s spread to other anti-U.S. countries in South America, such as Bolivia. But with the exception of my own coverage, there’s been hardly a peep about the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad planted the Iranian flag so far north in Nicaragua as soon as the time-tested American nemesis Daniel Ortega took office in January 2007. In fact, Ahmadinejad considered Ortega’s ascension so important that he was in Nicaragua to attend the inauguration. Within months, Iran was promising hundreds of millions in economic projects – and quickly set up a diplomatic mission in a tony Managua neighborhood where it could all supposedly be coordinated. Now Iran is extending its reach even further north, right into Mexico City with equally under-covered proposals to vastly expand tenuous ties to America’s immediate southern neighbor.
The national security implications of Iran forging paths throughout America’s southern sphere of influence are striking. Iran has long been known for using Hezbollah – the U.S.-designated terror organization it sired – to sow mayhem against its perceived enemies from the diplomatic cover provided by Iranian embassies. When considering Iran’s move to Nicaragua, it is important to remember that Iran had Hezbollah blow up the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in Argentina not so long ago, killing and wounding hundreds. This is according to a recent 800-page Argentine indictment and still outstanding arrest warrants for top Iranian officials and Revolutionary Guards who carried out the bombings under diplomatic cover provided by Iran’s Buenos Aires embassy.
But unlike those fairly distant countries, Nicaragua is close to the U.S. southern border and also to Mexico’s vast oil and gas infrastructure, which a small home-grown Mexican militant group was easily able to bomb at least half a dozen times in 2006 and 2007. Thousands of Nicaraguan laborers routinely cross the Mexican border and make their way over the U.S. border in search of work. It’s a pretty doable trip. And the mullahs, in addition to pushing for a greater presence in Mexico, keep on expanding in Nicaragua even now. If Iran ever got mad again about anything, couldn’t the ruling mullahs stage an Argentine repeat performance closer to home?
With all this in mind, and Bush saber rattling over the Iranian nuclear program, I persuaded my newspaper to send me to Nicaragua in October 2007. What I found should have been enough to pique the imagination of other reporters, more investigation, or even just some shallow coverage. But to date, there has been nothing more about Iran in Nicaragua, while there’s still plenty about Iran in distant Venezuela. The Iranians must be thrilled to operate in such a blackout.
Here’s what I came away with after 10 days chasing Iranians all over Nicaragua, trying to determine whether their promises of massive economic development were real or merely excuses to set up a diplomatic mission where terrorist operatives could work so close to the American and Mexican frontiers:
I found that no Iranian money or concrete planning had materialized for a promised new $350 million port on the eastern seaboard bay known as Monkey Point. The Iranians had only made at least a couple of easy day trips there and elsewhere around the country aboard helicopters. Neither had anything developed from Iranian promises to redevelop the dilapidated western port of Corinto, which supposedly would be linked to this Monkey Point port by a dry land canal. To date, no progress on either project has been reported. But the Iranian diplomatic mission that American national security experts most feared was sure up and humming with activity. It has steadily expanded its “staff,” according to some scattered local Nicaragua news reports.
I also discovered that suspected Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives had been moving in and out of the country in unusual ways that assured secrecy. For instance, I was given ministry of migration documents that show a senior Nicaraguan minister had allowed 21 Iranian men to enter without passport processing. This was exactly the kind of activity that preceded the Argentina bombings in 1992 and 1994. It’s the same kind of secretive movement going on in and out of Venezuela that gives current and former American counterterrorism officials – and Jewish communities in the region – the cold sweats.
Upon arriving in Managua, I linked up with a local interpreter to track down the Iranians and get them talking. In Managua’s exclusive suburb of Las Colinas, I noticed the distinctive red, white, and green flag of Iran hanging limply from a pole poking up beyond rolls of concertina wire that lined the 12-foot-high walls of a compound. But Iran’s new envoy to Nicaragua, Akbar Esmaeil-Pour, appeared to be in no talking mood over the course of several days. In response to doorbell rings, the face of the envoy’s personal driver – a local Nicaraguan – appeared in a head-sized slot in the metal gate. Two Nicaraguan policemen opened a door and stepped out with AK-47s, looking leery.
“He very much appreciates that you came all the way from America just to see him,” the face said. “The ambassador will call you when he has time. Maybe in a few days.”
And so it politely went for several more days, until the personal driver, feeling sorry for me, finally gave up the envoy’s personal cell phone number. A call to it drew an angry response from Mr. Esmaeil-Pour.
Members of Ortega’s Sandinista Party scoffed at any suggestion that the Iranian intent is somehow nefarious, despite what happened in Argentina. Several lawmakers told me the Iranian move to Nicaragua and South America made perfect sense in light of the American-led trade sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. But what could possibly be Iran’s return on investment? Nicaragua is dirt poor; its main export is bananas.
Former FBI Special Agent Jim Conway, who managed the bureau’s counter terrorism programs in Mexico after 9/11, is now a counterterrorism consultant in Houston. He knows Iran and Hezbollah like the back of his hand. Here’s what he told me the other day:
What interest and what could Nicaragua’s poverty stricken government offer Iran and Hezbollah other than “access” and a base of operations in close proximity to the U.S.? We know that Iran has built a massive diplomatic mission in Managua, which provides a huge blanket of “diplomatic cover” to Iran and its embassy personnel. What are all those Iranian “diplomats” doing in Nicaragua? Studying the banana industry?
In an office overlooking his small newsroom, the editor of the right-of-center La Prensa newspaper, Eduardo Enriquez, told me how he reads the Iranian move to Managua:
Only the most naïve believe there’ll be any economic development. The Iranians see this as a nice point to come and bother the Americans. The only thing we can offer them is a safe place where they can move Revolutionary Guard around. There is nothing else here for the Iranians.
The American authorities haven’t been particularly helpful to me, which struck me as more than odd, since Americans have quite often heaped public disdain on the Iran-Venezuela alliance. The American embassy openly supported Mr. Ortega’s opponents during the 2006 election campaign. A year later, though, embassy officials turned down all of my interview requests. With just one lone Texas reporter asking about the Iranians in Nicaragua, maybe they don’t feel enough pressure to give up any answers.
Given the ink expended about Iran in South America, the mullahs’ furthest reach north continues to go oddly – and conspicuously – unexamined.