MONKEY POINT, Nicaragua ó If the ruling mullahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran were chafing enough about U.S. Navy vessels in the Strait of Hormuz to send speedboats after them last month, they must take some comfort in having projected an equivalent threat in America's own backyard, in this unlikeliest of locales.
The Iranians have planted their flag here in the tree-festooned wilderness of hills that jut out to shelter a vast, unspoiled Caribbean bay on Nicaragua's eastern shore. The point's namesake monkeys swing through the heavy canopy above the smattering of Rama Indians and black Creole people who hunt them and other wildlife for daily sustenance, just as they have for generations. No television or communication informs the Rama and Creole of the internecine goings on in distant Managua, let alone some American beef with Iran half a globe away.
The English-speaking Creole parents of rising heavyweight boxer Evans Quinn, who grew up in a hand-hewn lumber shack, can't even get word of their son's latest fights in Las Vegas or Los Angeles until days after the final bell, when a panga boat pilot might motor in from the sea.
"The life we live here is a poor life," said Sullivan Quinn, whose doorstep is a beach landing where each morning his other sons use machetes to hack Tarpon fish to cooking pot size. "But my son, every time he comes home, he brings everyone shoes. If he keeps winning, he'll do something big and permanent for the whole community, like maybe a gymnasium."
Until recently, one local boxer's fortune was about the only story preoccupying the 300-odd Creole of Monkey Point. But perspectives broadened suddenly in March when Iranians and Venezuelans showed up aboard Nicaraguan military helicopters. They had come to scope out Monkey Point's bay for transformation to a $350 million deep-water shipping port. The port idea is part a new diplomatic relationship between Iran and the Sandinista revolutionary president, Daniel Ortega, that has flown largely under American press and broadcast radar since its August announcement. Iran has since issued fantastic promises that would include financing a rail, road, and pipeline "dry canal" from Monkey Point to an upgraded Port of Corinto on the Pacific, hydroelectric projects, and 10,000 houses in between.
With its latest diplomatic partnership with a time-tested American nemesis, Iran is now just a few porous borders away from President Bush's home state of Texas. All this matters because of fears the Islamic Republic can now project a threat close to America's borders and Mexico's petroleum infrastructure in the event of severe enough sanctions or even war.
I went to Nicaragua recently to see how all this is was playing out, and to take advantage of the fact that no American reporter had yet bothered. A visit made sense because so much has been written about a state sponsor of global terrorism like Iran deepening relations with Venezuela's America-hating president, Hugo Chavez. The only question is whether, in the event of war, Iran could deploy its Hezbollah and Revolutionary Guard agents to hit American interests or allies in South America. It's been done before, under the cover of Iran's embassies, to Jewish targets in Argentina, Americans in Iraq, and perceived enemies elsewhere around the world.
Given the ink expended about Iran in South America, the mullahs' furthest reach north has gone oddly, conspicuously unexamined.
Here's what I came away with after 10 days in Managua, Monkey Point, and Corinto:
While Iranian money has yet to materialize, the embassy that national security experts most fear as cover for terrorist plots is up and running. Revolutionary Guard operatives reportedly have been moving in and out of the country. In one instance, a senior government minister allowed 21 Iranian men to enter secretly without passport processing.
The longevity of any Iranian presence in Nicaragua may depend on whether it helps Mr. Ortega maintain his razor-thin margin of public support. Influential domestic opponents of the administration are ramping up strong criticism of the alliance, while Nicaragua's poor will support it unless promises go unfulfilled.
Unlike in Venezuela, the Americans have kept a tight lid on any official response to the Iranian move into Nicaragua, suggesting, as several intelligence officials speculate, heightened counter-espionage activity.
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 finally 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. Iran's new envoy to Nicaragua, Akbar Esmaeil-Pour, now calls the mansion inside home.
Over several days, Mr. Esmaeil-Pour appeared to be in no talking mood. In response to doorbell rings, the face of the envoy's personal driver, a local Nicaraguan, appeared in a head-size slot in the metal gate. Two national policemen opened a door and stepped out with AK-47s, 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, telling me to get in line behind 100 other reporters.
One reason for the reluctance might be the recent local press reports accusing the Iranians of sneaking in Revolutionary Guards under diplomatic cover. Current and former American counterterrorism officials say this is just the sort of activity that gives them cold sweats. Foremost on the minds of many who run in these circles are the 1992 and 1994 bombings of Jewish targets in Buenos Aires, now widely attributed to the Iranian Embassy there.
The country's largest daily newspaper, the right-of-center La Prensa, published leaked documents that showed a top Nicaragua immigration minister personally authorized 21 Iranian men to enter the country, without visas that would have left a record of passage. Mr. Ortega's government denied the report until confronted with the document, but still refuse to explain anything. In an office overlooking his small but energized newsroom, the editor of La Prensa, Eduardo Enriquez, handed over a copy of the damning document, with the names of all 21 Iranians quite legible, and explained how he reads the Iranian move to Managua.
"Only the most naÔve believe there'll be any economic development. The Iranians see this as a nice point to come and bother the Americans," he said. "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 weren't helpful, 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. State Department officials in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there's an official position: Nicaragua and Iran are two sovereign nations whose partnership is not American business. But one national security official suggested there was a lot more going on: "We're obviously not ignoring the situation."
Ultimately, the longevity of Iran's presence in Nicaragua may depend on whether Mr. Ortega can maintain a razor-thin margin of domestic support. There are signs that has become more tenuous with each new press report about Revolutionary Guards roving around. Increasingly alarmed domestic opponents of the Ortega regime fret about earning American enmity by taking the wrong side once again.
"That the Sandinistas helped at least 21 Iranians come and go under cover "is very worrisome," a former presidential candidate, Eduardo Montelegre, who was the runner-up to Mr. Ortega. "We don't know where those Iranians are going, hopefully not to the U.S. But wherever they're going, it's certainly not to do any good."
Mr. Bensman is a reporter for the San Antonio Express News. He can be reached at [email protected]