For Hearst Newspapers
MONKEY POINT, NICARAGUA — The second military helicopter in as many days hovered over the jungle and then landed to a most unwelcome reception from several dozen angry Rama Indian and Creole villagers.
Rupert Allen Clear Duncan, a leader of some 400 Creole who live along the shoreline,confronted the foreigners, who were dressed in suits and military uniforms that day in March. The villagers demanded to know the purpose of these aerial trespasses.
“This is our land; we have always lived here, and you don’t have our permission to be here,” Duncan spat, when refused the courtesy of an explanation.
Not until Duncan threatened to have his machete-waving followers damage the aircraft did they learn that some of the men were from the Islamic Republic of Iran and had come promising to establish a Central American foothold in the middle of their territory. As part of a new partnership with Nicaragua’s Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, Iran and its Venezuelan allies plan to help finance a $350 million deep-water port at Monkey Point on the wild Caribbean shore, and then plow a connecting “dry canal” corridor of pipelines, rails and highways across the country to the populous Pacific coast. Iran recently established an embassy in Nicaragua’s capital.
In feeling threatened by Iran’s ambitions, the people of Monkey Point have powerful company.
The Iranians’ arrival in Nicaragua comes as the Bush administration and some European allies hold the threat of war over Iran to force an end to its uranium enrichment program and alleged help to anti-U.S. insurgents in Iraq.
What worries state department officials, former national security officials and counterterrorism researchers is that, if attacked, Iran could stage strikes on American or allied interests from Nicaragua, deploying the Iranian terrorist group Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard operatives already in Latin America.Bellicose threats by Iran’s clerical leadership to hit American interests worldwide if attacked, by design or not, heighten the anxiety.
“The bottom line is if there is a confrontation with Iran, and Iran gets bombed, I have absolutely no doubt that Iran is going to lash out globally,” said John R. Schindler, a veteran former counterintelligence officer and analyst for the National Security Agency.
“The Iranians have that ability, particularly from South America. Hezbollah has fronts all over Latin America. That is not new. But it’s certainly something we’re starting to care about now.”
American policymakers already had been fretting in recent years over Tehran’s successful forging of diplomatic relations, direct air routes and embassy swaps with populist South American governments that abhor the U.S., such as President Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. But Iran’s latest move places it just a few porous borders from Texas, where illegal Nicaraguan laborers routinely travel.
The Argentina bombings
Foremost on the minds of those concerned about Iran’s new relationship with Nicaragua are two suicide bombings in Argentina, now widely ascribed to Iran, which denies responsibility.
The disquiet with this proximity is rooted in Iran’s track record and Bush administration saber rattling that has gone unabated despite a recent National Intelligence Estimate report that concluded Iran could build nuclear weapons if it wanted but had ended a clandestine weapons program.
Diplomats or terrorists
Four consecutive American administrations have designated the Islamic theocracy a State Sponsor of Terrorism since 1984 for ordering Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence operatives, sometimes posing as diplomats, to conduct bombings,assassinations and kidnappings worldwide.
Among the more indelible of these were the suicide bombings of Marines in Beirut, the 1996 Kobar Tower bombing in Saudi Arabia and assassinations from Beirut to Washington.
Few Nicaragua observers believe Iran seriously plans to follow through on any of its$500 million promises or has any obvious need for trade ties with one of Latin America’s poorest countries.
Opposition politicians say they understand why Iran might want relations with oil-rich Venezuela and Bolivia but wonder aloud if Iran really is so interested in Nicaraguan bananas as their return on investment.
Those who view Iranian intentions with suspicion point to the new Iranian diplomatic mission in Managua as one reason for all the promises.
“They use their embassies to smuggle in weapons. They used them to develop and execute plans,” said Oliver “Buck” Revell, who served as associate deputy director over FBI intelligence and international affairs.”Diplomats have immunity coming and going. It is a protected center for both espionage and, on occasion, for specific operations. So an embassy in Managua is definitely an area that will be of concern to our national security apparatus.”
Front and center on many minds is Argentina’s contention that Iran, using its embassy as cover, orchestrated two Hezbollah bombings of Israeli and Jewish community targets in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s.
This year, Argentina secured Interpol arrest warrants for five former Iranian officials, most of them who worked as diplomats in the Buenos Aires embassy. Iran denies Argentina’s charges.
Also in recent months, the U.S. military repeatedly has accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of using diplomatic cover in Iraq to help insurgents kill American soldiers. Iran denies that charge too. In October, the Bush administration and Congress designated the Revolutionary Guard and its elite arm, the Quds force,as global terror organizations.
Israelis worried about Nicaragua, too, noting the Israeli business community in next-door Costa Rica, Jewish populations throughout Latin America and Iran’s repeated vows to militarily destroy the Jewish state. Israel has promised to take action alone if diplomacy fails to halt Iran’s nuclear programs.
Said one Israeli envoy in the region who requested anonymity, “It’s just that they could use their diplomatic infrastructure to repeat Argentina. They’ll promise millions, they won’t send a penny. But they will send a delegation.”
Publicly so far, U.S. administration officials, who opposed Ortega’s bid for the presidency last year, aren’t saying much. But privately, State Department officials in Washington hint that Iran’s move to Nicaragua — and Ortega’s warm reception — isn’t being taken lightly.
Some intelligence experts presume the Iranian move to Nicaragua already has stepped up foreign espionage operations to an extent not seen since in that country since the Cold War.
To be sure, not everyone views the Iranian move to Managua as nefarious. Some foreign policy analysts depict Iran’s outreach to anyone offering a welcome mat as a logical response to defeat two rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions and gain voting U.N. friends as more rounds are contemplated.
“Iran has its own foreign policy. They’re just trying to extend their influence,” said Peter Rodman, a senior fellow in foreign policy for the Brookings Institute. “They’ll stick to economic activity.”
Other analysts see as entirely logical that Iran would project a deterrent in America’s backyard to make Washington think twice about military action.
“When you’ve got Washington calling you evil, and there’s a steady stream of reports from Washington about bombing campaigns, what would you do if you were an Iranian strategic planner?” said Dennis Jett, dean of the International Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “These guys have a track record of using diplomats and diplomatic missions as a mechanism for terrorism, so why wouldn’t they be making that calculation now?”
A mystery compound
Twelve-foot-high concrete walls topped by neat rolls of razor-sharp concertina wire protect the manicured grounds of a mansion inside. The compound is not unlike many others in the affluent Managua suburb of Las Colinas, except for a tell-tale identifier.
From the street outside, through the wire at just the right angle, can be seen the top half of the distinctive red, white and green flag of Iran. This is the temporary embassy of Iran’s new envoy to Nicaragua, Akbar Esmaeil-Pour.
The envoy, however, hasn’t been in a talking mood lately, since local media stirred just the sort of questions that fuel Yankee fears. Last month, the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, La Prensa, published leaked government documents that showed Nicaragua’s chief immigration minister personally authorized 21 Iranian men to enter the country, without visas that would have left a record.
Officials denied the report until confronted with the document but refused to explain why the men were let in that way or what became of them.
Another report named as Revolutionary Guard operatives several men who accompanied the Iranian envoy to his new digs. A Honduran newspaper in June reported that Iranians had entered that country without permission from Nicaragua.
Knocks on embassy gates over four days recently drew Nicaragua national police guards and two polite aides but no interview. A call to Esmaeil-Pour’s private cellphone showed how much curiosity his presence has stoked lately.
“I’ve had hundreds of requests for interviews, and yours is only one! I’m very busy,” the ambassador snapped before hanging up.
The Ortega government also wouldn’t talk as internal criticism mounts about the country’s new alliance. But politicians from his Sandinista Party were quick to defend the country’s right to relations with Iran or any other country willing to invest in Nicaragua. Several predicted Iran would follow through and said Nicaragua never would knowingly allow terrorist activity.
“Nicaragua’s agenda in its international relations does not depend on whether a third country has good or bad relations with x or y country,” said Walmaro Gutierrez, a Sandinista Party congressmen. “To identify a country as terrorist just because of nationality, race, ethnicity or religion is discriminatory. I want to make clear we have signed the (U.N.) international convention against terrorism. We are very responsible.”
Opening the door
No one disagrees that old grudges and American neglect helped open the door for Iran.From 1980 to 1988, the CIA clandestinely fielded the Contra rebels for a guerilla war on Ortega’s Soviet-backed regime, at one point funding them from secret arms sales to a Sandinista ally at the time, Iran.
Ortega boasts solid anti-American credentials, aligning in the old days with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, and more recently defending Iran’s right to develop nuclear bombs.
U.S. relations with Ortega’s successors improved during the 1990s, but did not entail much in the way of foreign aid that could be leveraged now.
Nicaragua remains neglected, with the western hemisphere’s third-lowest per-capita income, a vast foreign debt and energy shortages so profound that electricity must be rationed.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saw opportunity in Ortega’s election. He was in Managua talking about hydroelectric and oil projects the week of Ortega’s January inauguration. By August, Ahmadinejad had committed to fantastic promises that, along with Monkey Point, include fixing the Pacific port of Corinto and building 10,000 houses.
Ortega’s alignment with Iran and Venezuela is causing some political blowback that may erode his thin public support. Some opposition leaders and reform-minded Sandinistas don’t like that Nicaragua has taken sides in a fight that doesn’t involve it.
Recent presidential candidate Eduardo Montelegre, who finished as the runner-up toOrtega, said Ortega is “irresponsible” to risk Nicaragua’s rebounding trade and good standing with the West by providing Iran a possible staging ground — even unwittingly.
“This is very simple. You draw a line between democracy and terrorist countries, and we don’t want to be on the wrong side of the line,” Montelegre said.”If the U.S. goes to war on Iran, those who are on the wrong side are not going to fare well.”
But most Nicaraguans hardly can afford to consider such intrigue. They are living hand-to-mouth existences in slums or squatting on bits of land. Sufficient numbers of them voted to elect Ortega and don’t seem to particularly care who he brings to the dinner table.
A pile of scrap metal, rusted to a brownish orange, is all that remains of oil tanks that CIA-led Contras blew up in a 1983 speedboat raid on Nicaragua’s port town of Corinto. The shrapnel-riddled tanks stood until just four months ago, when new Sandinista port directors decided to tear them down.
The pile symbolizes a new dawn for Nicaragua, insisted Absalón Martínez Navas, the neglected port’s newly installed Sandinista vice manager.
“We have investors,” Navas announced. “It’s nothing concrete yet. But we’re making studies. We’re making plans, not only to develop the port but also the community.”
One of the biggest backers, he said, is going to be the Iranian government. Probably. Two months earlier, the Iranians signaled they were serious when they sent atop transportation official to tour the port’s crumbling surfaces, decommissioned warehouses and out-of-date machinery.
The Sandinista government’s hope for Corinto is a $100 million upgrade and two new wharfs, to then be connected by the dry canal to Monkey Point. This scheme, Navas explained, would enrich Nicaragua by drawing Venezuelan oil and shipping business from the Panama Canal, Costa Rica and El Salvador.
The dry canal has been around on paper for nearly 100 years. But it found new life in a drive by Venezuela’s Chávez to wean his country’s huge oil industry from loathed dependence on U.S. refineries, transportation and markets.
This comes as good news on the streets of Corinto’s many barrios and at City Hall,where Mayor Ernesto Mendez adorns his office walls with Chávez posters and Sandinista propaganda.
Many of the town’s 18,000 people live with no electricity or plumbing, and depend on the port for meager sustenance. Alphonso Jose Estrada, who spent 30 years working at the port, wishes the Iranians the best of luck.
“Even the U.S. is accused sometimes of being terrorists,” he said. “Just because the Iranians are coming here doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to cause terrorism. We’ll see more ships. That’s going to mean more jobs.”
That’s a much-shared sentiment in a town where the port is so decrepit that only a ship or two a week docks.
One recent evening, word went out over an invisible grapevine that a ship was coming. Hundreds of men wearing yellow hard hats converged in waves of bicycles to vie for shifts as stevedores or forklift operators. The pay: a precious $8 per 12-hour shift.
After an hour or two of anxious waiting, only a few dozen were picked, the rest consigned to pedaling home with bad news. Many who land one or two shifts a month welcome any plan — by anyone — to bring more.
Some of the bicyclists stopped long enough to talk about the Iranian proposal butwouldn’t give names, for fear of not getting selected to work.
“It’s a bad friend,” one young bicyclist said of the Iranians. “But if the bad friend builds the port, then they’re a good friend!”
A land rights clash
Feelings about the Iranian promises mostly break a different way at Monkey Point, on Nicaragua’s other coast. The Rama and Creole here mostly live on Nicaragua’ sp olitical margins, subsisting on fish and jungle animals in isolation. Time isstill told by sun and tides.
Because of their separateness, a more contrarian streak prevails that may, in the end,prove more than just an irritant to the Ortega government’s partnership with the Iranians. Many Monkey Point young men fought with the Contras against Ortega’s Sandinistas. They’ve been feeling rebellious again since the helicopters came.
The Monkey Point community wants legal rights to roughly a half-million acres where generations have lived. Twice in the past 10 years, people there have resisted development proposals.
Pearl Watson, the self-styled community president who travels the globe raising awareness, said the community made substantial progress under previous governments, including a new law under which it can stake a formal claim.That’s why Watson said people felt especially pained when the Iranians and Venezuelans showed up with another port proposal that did not seem to recognize all that had gone before.
“They don’t want to tell the people nothing; they just want to show up and do what they want,” Watson said in her office in the bustling coastal town of Blue fields, a 30-mile boat ride from Monkey Point. “Our people don’t like the way the government is imposing development on us, with no guarantees of how the people will benefit.”
Lately, she’s been reaching out to human rights organizations to help fight Ortega, and considering filing a case in international courts if the port idea progresses before their land boundaries are decided. A successful campaign could throw quite a wrench in the Monkey Point plans. But the fear of forcible removal by their old enemies, the Sandinista Party, if all this fails is palpable where jungle and beach meet. Frustration is on the rise.Lately, some of the young men have begun talking about reminding the Sandinistas that this same community once fought with the Contras, that they might not have turned in all the weapons.
“It gonna be total destruction for us if them build it down here,” said Rupert Allen Clear Duncan, the community leader who confronted the helicopter delegation. “Here we have a beautiful life, man. We never find us living anywhere else.”
Rama and Creole play spirited game of soccer on Monkey Point beach. Photo by Todd Bensman