(CNSNews.com) – The Iranian-supported Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah has spread its influence all the way to the U.S. border with Mexico, a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere heard on Thursday.
Michael Braun, a former chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Agency, said Hezbollah had developed relationships with the powerful Mexican drug cartels to “move their agenda forward.” He cited a plot, recently uncovered by the DEA, involving an Iranian operative in Mexico allegedly planning to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.
“Hezbollah are absolute masters at forming close relationships with existing organized crime groups around the world that helps them facilitate what they need to do to move their agendas forward,” Braun told CNSNews.com following the hearing. “And if anyone thinks for a moment that they don’t have their eye on the southwest border and all of our country, then they couldn’t be more wrong.”
In his prepared remarks Braun, who also served as interim director of the Department of Justice’s Drug Intelligence Fusion Center, said Hezbollah and other terrorist groups understand that the Mexican cartels are already operating successfully inside the United States.
“If anyone thinks for one moment that these terrorist organizations do not understand that the Mexican drug trafficking cartels now dominate drug trafficking in our country – reportedly in more than 250 cities – than they are very stupid or very naive,” he said.
“And these groups most assuredly recognize the strategic value of exploiting that activity, and all that has been built to support it, for moving their vision forward in this part of the world.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the committee, cited Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force and its connections to the Zeta drug cartel in the foiled assassination attempt on U.S. soil.
She asked Braun whether he believed Iran had “strategic interests” in Central America and the southwest border.
Braun said Quds Force and Hezbollah work “very, very hard” to develop relationships with criminal groups that already have in place systems for illegal activities, including drug and human trafficking, money laundering and forged document operations.
“And by developing those relations it provides them with the ability to operate far from home in our neighborhood and – as I said earlier – on our doorstep,” he replied.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), committee member and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee of oversight and investigations, asked about Hezbollah’s relationship to criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere and what it means for U.S. security.
Braun warned that those relationships allow “these groups to operate freely in our neighborhood” and said the U.S. would regret it if the threats were not taken seriously.
“I don’t want to sound too crude, but I think there’s going to be hell to pay in the not too distant future,” he said.
For the most part the tone of the hearing was bipartisan in nature, with Democrats on the committee agreeing that Iran is trying to exert influence in the Western Hemisphere.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent trip to Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, is proof that Iran is “up to no good.”
But Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the committee, defended the Obama administration against claims that it is complacent about the threat Iran poses closer to home.
“Our government is fully attentive to this matter,” he said.
An expert witness testifying before the panel, Norman A. Bailey, called for Venezuela to be named a state sponsor of terrorism for “facilitating Iranian illicit activity,” noting among other things Iran’s role in the Venezuelan banking system.
“Responding to this threat requires the United States and allied governments to complicate Iranian access to the Americas, and penalize those involved in facilitating Tehran’s intrusion, said Bailey, who served in the Reagan administration’s National Security Council and later in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where he served as “mission manager” for Venezuela and Cuba.
“This includes measures such as the designation of certain Venezuelan banks and affiliates by the U.S. Treasury Department and other agencies for their role in facilitating Iranian illicit activity, and even the outright declaration of Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism – a move that would open the door for the U.S. to take more direct and punitive action against the Chavez regime for its collusion with both Iran and Hezbollah,” Bailey said.
Ros-Lehtinen recalled what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, focused on global threats to the U.S.
“[Clapper] stated this week, ‘Iranian officials – probably including supreme leader Ali Khamenei – have changed their calculus and are now willing to conduct an attack in the United States.’”
Ros-Lehtinen said Iran’s alliances in Latin America provide it with “a platform in the region to carry out attacks against the United States, our interests, and allies.”