Don’t trust Iranian journalists, Gen. Kelly tells Latin America

Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, the new top commander of U.S. forces for Latin and South America, warned countries in the region not to trust the ongoing Iranian diplomatic and cultural offensive there.

For the past five to six years, Kelly said today at the Pentagon, Iran has expanded its embassies and cultural centers, and although he claimed Iran’s efforts were not making much headway in general, he did say that certain countries need to wise up.

“They’re not getting much traction, by the way, in terms of influence,” Kelly said, of Iran’s South American push. “Although there are some Latin American countries that I won’t go into that are concerned.”

“I’ve warned some of the -- made mention to some of our friends in the region that these guys are very, very good at what they do. And very skilled at what they do. And that people should just be careful as to who they’re dealing with, whether they claim to be an Iranian journalist or Iranian peace worker or something, just to be careful because these often times are not what they appear to be or that their stated -- what they’re doing in their country.”

“So I just, I think I need to let it go at that and can’t get into anything classified.”

Kelly, who was senior military assistant to Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, was back at the Pentagon after briefing members of Congress this week. Now with a fourth star, Kelly did something rare for the military’s combatant commanders: he came to the Pentagon briefing and took open questions from the press corps.

“I’m a rock star,” Kelly said of his reputation in Latin and South America. The region is hungry for American military help, especially in joint forces training and in stopping narco-trafficking.

Kelly said that 150-200 tons of drugs are caught before they reach U.S. shores “with a minimal number of surface ships and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance).” But the lingering sequester fight in Washington, on top of the $487 billion in Budget Control Act cuts, could have an effect. For every ship he has to take out of service, Kelly said that 20-25 tons of additional narcotics will make it into the United States.

“Do I have enough assets? I don’t,” he said. “Even in the normal period before sequestration, I had only a fraction of what I could effectively use.”

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call