By CNN National Security Producer Jennifer Rizzo
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tour of Latin America this week comes as questions are being raised about whether the United States is sufficiently focused on the potential for national security threats from Latin America.
The trip comes just days after President Obama unveiled a new security posture that puts more emphasis on the Middle East and Pacific, at the expense of Latin America, critics contend.
But defense officials insist that even with a pared-down U.S. military, Latin America will not be ignored.
"In Latin America, Africa, elsewhere in the world, we will use innovative methods to sustain U.S. presence," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said of the new strategy.
U.S. special forces freshly back from Iraq and Afghanistan will be heading south of the border to maintain the U.S. presence in Latin America, according to Defense Department officials - an example of the "low-cost and small-footprint approaches" Panetta said would be emphasized.
The United States has already been putting its plan to work. After 10 years of focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon said it has learned to improvise elsewhere.
"That has forced us to pioneer some fairly innovative approaches," said Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy.
Special Operations Forces teams, which have played a major role in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be deployed to countries in Latin America in an advising and training role, rotating out as necessary, Flournoy said.
"We've invested an awful lot in our Special Operations Forces over the last decade," said Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld. "These are very agile and flexible forces, small units. ... We're going to retain those forces and leverage them into other missions, to include the partner nations in other continents."
Republicans campaigning for the presidency have voiced concern over what they see as a lack of commitment to a region that could be ripe ground for terrorist activity.
"Right now Hezbollah ... is working throughout Latin America, in Venezuela, in Mexico, throughout Latin America, which poses a very significant and imminent threat to the United States of America," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a CNN debate.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum expressed similar views in the same debate.
"What's going on in Central and South America - I'm very concerned about the militant socialists and the radical Islamists joining together, bonding together," he said.
Ahmadinejad's Latin America visit, which began Sunday in Venezuela, is being closely monitored by the United States, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Mora told CNN en Espanol's Juan Carlos Lopez in a recent interview. The trip includes stops in Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador.
But the threat from Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America is minimal, some analysts say.
"I don't think that Latin America is a fertile ground for Iran's austere revolutionary ideology," said Carnegie Endowment analyst Karim Sadjadpour. "When you travel throughout Latin America you see that most people actually are interested in living in an open society, a free society."
A closer look, however, is needed at trade and aid agreements between Iran and Latin American countries, according to Stephen Johnson with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"We need to be accurate about what it is we are really worried about because there is a lot we don't know. We don't have complete information about Iran's activities because Iran doesn't open its books to international scrutiny in terms of its aid," he said.
Development programs like the building of cement and dairy plants make Johnson take pause as they could be used to hide the enrichment of uranium or evidence of bomb building.
"They don't always make sense. Why these things instead of aid that the country really needs," he said.
When it comes down to looking at the numbers, however, the United States "out aids" Iran big time.
"Both in terms of our influence and in terms of our assets, the U.S. presence and U.S. influence in Latin America dwarfs that of Iran," said Sadjadpour. "So of all the foreign policy concerns that the United States needs to rightly be focusing on, Iran's role in Latin America wouldn't be in my top 20."
The United States military spends about $500 million a year in Latin America, according to the number tracking website "Just the Facts".
"Budget dust," Johnson called it when comparing the billions of military dollars that get spent in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military resources are primarily focused on disaster response and countering narcotics trafficking, mainly by training and supporting local law enforcement.
"The two biggest security threats in Latin America these days are transnational criminal groups and natural disasters. They represent the biggest potential for death," said Johnson. "Weak civilian law enforcement and fledgling first responders in some jurisdictions are no match for these."
And the violence in the region continues to be a concern for the United States, according to Adam Isacson with the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America. The countries with the highest homicide rates in the world are in Central America.
"You have these incredibly high violent crime rates," said Isacson. "Your chance of being murdered in Honduras is double your chance of being murdered in Iraq."
Despite these issues, the U.S. military role in the region has been on a downward trend for years.
"Our biggest challenge in the last decade was supporting Colombia's fight as it came back from near failed-state status to take back half of its countryside, end a 40-year civil conflict, and reduce drug trafficking," Johnson said. "But when it became obvious Colombia's effort was self-sustaining, a gradual reduction in assistance was planned as far back as the middle of President Bush's second term."
The reduction was not necessarily a bad thing, according to Johnson.
"The threats in this hemisphere have been gradually changing toward those that are best handled by a mix of military specialties supporting civilian law enforcement," he said. "Our engagement and force structures have to match the times."