Bottom-line: Iran is successfully currying favor in an expanded audience in Latin America, enabling it to develop crucial economic ties and evade the consequences of the embargo.
Background: State-sponsored terrorism and a covert nuclear weapons program placed Iran on international pariah status. Both the U.S. and the E.U. enacted stringent sanctions, so that neither permits trade with Iran except in very limited circumstances, requiring a waiver. Iran seeks to counter the effects of isolation by finding new allies and deepening state-to-state relationships with the few countries it counts as an ally.
Recognizing Tehran’s growing influence in its “backyard,” President Barack Obama signed the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012 on 28 December 2012. The bill calls for a “comprehensive government-wide strategy to counter Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere.” The legislation tasks various U.S. agencies with deterring the threat posed by Iran, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRGC’s Quds Force, and Hezbollah by collaborating with regional partners.
The number of potential anti-Iran allies is waning: since his election in 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has opened six additional embassies in the region for a total of eleven Iranian embassies in Latin America – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela. At the same time, trade between Iran and Latin America has more than tripled to around US$4 billion. After a steady four-year climb, the Brazil-Iran trade balance reached US$2.6 billion in 2011. Exports from Argentina to Iran, its second-largest trade partner in Latin America, grew from US$84 million in 2008 to US$1.2 billion in 2011.
Not surprisingly, one of Iran’s strongest relationships in the region is with fellow “anti-imperialist” Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The friendship between Chávez and Ahmadinejad opened doors for Iran in Latin America to develop diplomatic and economic ties to Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua—all staunch Chávez supporters.
In November 2009, Ahmadinejad visited Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who later defended Iran’s right to pursue a nuclear program. In 2010 Lula proposed a fuel-swap deal; those talks stalled. Yet Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota believes there is an opportunity to revive negotiations with Iran for a fuel contract in 2013, though the Dilma Rousseff administration decidedly keeps Iran at a distance.
In 2013 Iran will continue to provide technical and engineering services to the mining and hydrocarbon sectors throughout Latin America, a form of export but also a means of integrating Iranians into the Western Hemisphere. Chávez and his Bolivarian allies have issued hundreds of passports or national ID cards to Iranian citizens. (See Douglas Farah’s Testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Nov 2012) On 31 January 2012, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s (IRIB) launched HispanTV, a 24-hour international Spanish-language HD channel. Apart from such public overtures, Iran exerts influence indirectly through Hezbollah, a criminal-terrorist organization that maintains ties to criminal organizations in Paraguay and the Tri-Border region.
More recent events demonstrate an even greater expansion of Iranian influence:
1. On 21 January 2013, German customs officials discovered a Venezuelan check for US$70 million in the bag of Tahmasb Mazaher, Iran’s former Central Bank Director. Mazaher failed to declare the funds, so German authorities confiscated the check while they investigate.
2. On 27 January 2013, Argentina announced plans to establish a joint truth commission with Iran to investigate the 1994 car bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires. Iran allegedly directed the attack, perpetrated by Hezbollah, though the Iranian government has not cooperated in investigations. Argentina requested the arrest of the current Minister of Defense for Iran, Ahmad Vahidi, and five other Iranians for their participation in the AMIA bombing in 2007.
Commentary: Although Iranian influence on a certain segment of Latin America, namely the Bolivarian Alliance (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, or “ALBA”), its burgeoning prominence in the politics of non-ALBA Latin states should worry the U.S. In 2009 the Argentine delegation walked out on Ahmadinejad’s speech at the U.N. In 2011, they sat and listened as he verbally attacked Western powers.
In the eyes of the United States, the Countering Iran Act is grounded in the precedents of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) and the Roosevelt Corollary (1904). Both axioms invoke the United States’ right to intervene in the event that a non-hemispheric actor disrupts regional peace and safety. That precept justified action against “Soviet” communism in Latin America during the Cold War, though since the 1990s, Washington’s perennial preoccupation with other areas of focus across the world significantly diluted any remnant soft power threat the Monroe Doctrine may pose in Latin America in 2013.
For its part, an Iranian military commander already predicted the failure of the Countering Iran Act, noting the legislation will not deter Iran from continuing to engage Latin America. For both Iran and its ALBA allies, U.S. annoyance is a motivating factor to move forward with cooperation, not deterrence. So far in 2013, Iran is gaining ground as support for the U.S. and E.U. erodes.
This article was originally published by Southern Pulse.