The Mottled Relationship: Iran and Latin America – A Brief OverviewBy: COHA Guest Scholar J.A. and COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez
- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to visit President Hugo Chávez on September 24, but the trip was postponed as the Venezuelan head of state recovers from cancer.
- Ahmadinejad partially empties UN Hall with some of his harshest statements.
- Iranian influence in Latin America is sometimes more fiction than fact.
- Befriending Iran’s repressive regime is somewhat contradictory for Latin American governments that openly crow their respect for democracy and human rights. Does Brazil really mean to have a creditable relationship with one of the most disreputable players and human rights violators?
- In an ironic twist, Chávez is credited for mediating with the Iranian government to free two American hikers.
- The attacks against Israeli centers in Argentina in 1992 and 1994 continue to be a source of tension, but in Buenos Aires, business comes first.
The Islamic Republic of Iran and Latin America have been fostering closer relationships for more than a decade, working towards building cohesive diplomatic relations and strengthening economic agreements. These ties began with Cuba’s championing of the 1979 Iranian revolution, and today those connections also extend to Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and the ever-controversial Venezuela, with these amplified ties being sedulously cultivated by Tehran. Due to Iran’s internal politics, such as its controversial nuclear program, its contemptible human rights record, and its often tense, if not minatory, relations with the U.S., initiatives between Tehran and the Western Hemispheric states have come under heavy critique. As a result, there is speculation and differing interpretations over the existing level of influence that Iran currently enjoys in several nations of Latin America.
A Brief Overview
Ironically, as relations with the U.S. and European countries have deteriorated, Iran’s relations with the Global South have, if anything, noticeably progressed. Perhaps as a direct result of the U.S. placing Iran within the ‘axis of evil’, the Iranian state began pursuing relationships with African governments and, within the last decade, an increasing number of Latin American countries, as a strategy to counteract U.S.-backed ostracism and efforts to diplomatically isolate Tehran. The apparent reasons for these alliances are:
(a) to gain economic advantage as well as much-needed relief and collegiality to cope with the consequences of U.S.- imposed sanctions;
(b) to counterbalance the geopolitical effect of U.S. policy in both the Muslim World and Latin America;
(c) to garner a sympathetic attitude and support for its nuclear program;
(d) to gain recognition in an increasingly prominent part of the Western Hemisphere, and in Washington’s sphere of influence, in order to achieve political prestige in the international community. This also helps, in part, divert the attention among the Iranian people, particularly in the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian election fraud that prompted massive repression of the dissenting democratic opposition.
The most pertinent questions, however, remain to be answered: Has the long term impact of these increasingly intimate relationships, such as the one between Caracas and Tehran, been fully analyzed? Are the initiatives and maneuverings carried out by some Latin American governments solely due to their impetuousness and lack of long-term goals? Notwithstanding the immediate economic advantage of gaining new markets, the long-term political ramifications and disadvantages of doing business with what the free world considers a horrendously corrupt regime places the Latin American region into a precarious situation. Latin America’s good will initiatives and human resources could be more wisely expended in dealing with nations that do not carry out egregious abuses towards its own citizens.
Case Study: Argentina
In March 1992, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was the subject of a bomb attack. It has been established that a pickup truck loaded with explosives, and driven by a suicide bomber, smashed into the front of the embassy, killing thirty-three and wounding as many as 242 persons. In July 1994, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA; Argentine Israelite Mutual Association) building in Buenos Aires was the target of an attack that killed eighty-five people, while scores more were injured.
The violent Islamist militant organization Hezbollah has been regarded as the culprit behind these attacks, but there have been rumors that the Iranian government, including some members of the current administration in Tehran, may have been more directly involved. Iran has repeatedly declared its innocence regarding its involvement in both attacks. In July 2011, Iran’s Foreign Ministry stated that “the Islamic Republic of Iran, as one of the major victims of terrorism, condemns all acts of terror, including the 1994 AMIA bombing, and offers sympathy with the families of the victims of the explosion […] Iran’s Foreign Ministry expresses regret that 17 years on from the occurrence of this crime, the truth behind it has not been revealed yet and the identities of its real perpetrators are still shrouded in mystery.”[i] Furthermore, an article published by Press TV (a semi-official Iranian news agency) in July argues that, “under intense political pressure from the United States and the Israeli regime, Argentina formally accused Iran of carrying out the attack on the Jewish community.”[ii] Most independent observers, however, dismiss this rhetoric merely as tactical method to confuse the subject.
Tensions between Iran and Argentina took a new twist in early June 2011, when Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi visited Bolivia. General Vahidi is wanted by Argentina for allegedly masterminding the 1994 bombing.[iii] Buenos Aires asked La Paz to apprehend the Iranian official, but he returned to Tehran before any decision by the Bolivian government could be made.[iv] As Iran continues to promote its influence in Latin America, the controversy over the Argentine bombings will continue to be a sore point for the foreseeable future. The Argentine-Iranian relationship, or lack thereof, presents a fascinating case study of a state trying to improve relations with another while at the same time attempting to overcome a violent recent past that includes state-sponsored terrorism.
Trade and Investments
During recent years, Iran has expanded its economic cooperation with many Latin American states, entering into substantial trade agreements with Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil and, somewhat surprisingly, Argentina. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated in a report issued in December 2009 that Brazil is Iran’s largest trade partner in Latin America. Last year, Iran’s state radio announced that bilateral trade with Brazil had increased to more than USD 2 billion in 2009-10, an increase from USD 500 million in 2005, and was forecast to reach USD 10 billion in the next 5 years.[v]
Argentina is Iran’s second largest trading partner in the region, despite the fact that Buenos Aires has accused Tehran of the 1992 and 1994 bombings. Trade relations remained at marginal rates throughout the 1990s, but commercial activity never ceased entirely, and by 2008 bilateral trade had soared to USD 1.2 billion, dramatically overshadowing the 2007 figure of USD 30 million.
In addition, relations between Iran and Venezuela are a mixed bag of actual achievement and diplomatic rhetoric. According to the IMF report, and in spite of highly cordial political and diplomatic relations, bilateral trade between Venezuela and Iran did not advance in the same way as it did for other Latin American countries. For example, while Brazilian and Argentine trade with Iran has increased by 88 percent and 96 percent since 2007 respectively, Venezuela’s trade increased by only 31 percent in the same period. Following the increase in trade with Brazil and Argentina, Venezuela became Iran’s fifth largest trade partner in the region.
Moreover, Iran has pursued deeper trade and diplomatic relationships with Bolivia as well. Trade and energy agreements between La Paz and Tehran, signed in September 2007, confirmed the increasingly friendly nature of ties between the two countries. Iran’s involvement in the Bolivian economy extends to investment in and technological support for industrial projects such as dairy factories, agriculture, mining, and hydroelectric dam construction. Additionally, in July 2009, Tehran agreed to provide USD 280 million in low-interest loans to La Paz.[vi] Finally, Peru is also a growing importer of Iranian products, as is Ecuador. The expansion of trade ties follows an overall regional trade ‘offensive’ by Iran in recent years. IMF data analyzed by the Latin Business Chronicle indicates that Iran-Latin American trade skyrocketed by 209 percent in 2008, totaling a robust USD 2.9 billion.[vii] What this data tells us is that there is certainly a potential for trade to grow between Iran and several Western Hemisphere states, however Iran’s trade numbers are dwarfed by the region’s other trade partners, like the U.S., China and Europe.
To Washington’s increasing concern, the Brazilian Deputy Foreign Minister Maria Louisa met with her Iranian counterpart, Ali Ahani, in Brazil in early August 2011.[viii] The Brazilian official described Iran as one of “the important partners of Brazil” and an “influential” country. Louisa noted that Tehran and Brasilia would attempt to increase the level of mutual ties “considering the developments of the two countries in different fields.” The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, for his part, hailed “the friendly and good relations” between both states and said that the governments of Iran and Brazil are eager to expand ties. Given the grim status quo between Washington and Tehran, at some point in the near future, the White House is bound press the issue, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff may have to choose whether her government will pursue closer relations with Washington, or with Tehran.
According to the Iranian International Newspaper Ettelaat, Iran has nearly doubled the number of embassies and cultural centers it maintains in Latin America. The number of embassies increased from six in 2005 to ten in 2010, and Tehran is building cultural centers in seventeen Latin American countries.[ix] Additionally, Iran has successfully negotiated no-visa agreements with Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Bolivia. It can also be argued that although relations have been strained with Argentina since the terrorist bombings, the continued trade between the two countries is a signal that geopolitical interests have gradually taken precedence over efforts to apprehend the perpetrators of the attacks. Argentina’s reaction to the visit of Defense Minister Vahidi to Bolivia does point out that Buenos Aires has not forgotten Iran’s alleged role, but that ultimately other initiatives have taken priority.
Nevertheless, if we consider Iran’s repressive regime, its brutal crackdown on dissenting voters, and the continued suppression of what most nations, particularly in the West, consider a wholly organic and legitimate uprising, it is difficult to comprehend the continued warming of relations with its Latin American partners. Nations are certainly free to pursue close relations with any states they wish, but it is baffling, considering the Iranian government’s repressive record when it comes to its own population, that Latin American governments, many of which repeatedly publicly proclaim their respect for human rights, want to befriend a thoroughly toxic nation like Iran. So what could be the reasons why Latin American countries continue to welcome the Iranian government’s overtures? Simply put, Latin American nations want an alternative to what some regional players see, at times, as U.S. imperialism. This is exemplified by the Chávez and Ahmadinejad pact signed in 2007 to formulate an “Axis of Unity”, particularly against the U. S.
In order for Iran to gain the geopolitical strength that its revolutionary leaders so fervently aspire to obtain, the country continues to play its U.S- as-an-imperial power card as aggressively as possible. It also plays a powerful role in pushing its Latin American partners into recognizing Palestine as a counterbalancing force against U.S. and Israeli influence. When it comes to assessing geopolitical gains, the common denominator between Latin America and Iran is economic advancement, rather than the counterbalancing of geopolitical power. Venezuela’s President Chávez is the exception to this rule, as, even though Venezuelan-Iranian economic relations are fairly robust, a major factor for this close rapprochement is that Chavez and the Iranian government are fairly ideologically aligned (at least regarding their views on Washington).
Support for Iran’s Nuclear Program
Venezuela, Cuba, and Syria were the only three countries that supported Iran’s nuclear energy program when the UN voted on it in 2006. However, there is little doubt that support has been increasing throughout Latin America due to Iran’s diligent pursuit of such backing. Now Bolivia and Brazil are also offering their measured support for Tehran’s civilian nuclear program. In addition, the ever-vociferous Venezuelan leader has officially stated that Iran has a legitimate right to its nuclear program and that Venezuela supports Tehran’s quest for peaceful nuclear technology.[x]
The Future of the Iran-Latin America Alliance
Chávez’s present personal medical issues, and the recent U.S.-imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil company PDVSA[xi] (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. – Venezuelan Petroleum S.A) for dealings with Iran, could serve to weaken the Venezuelan-Iranian nexus.[xii] This is because Venezuela’s current ideological views – particularly its foreign policy – ultimately derive from Chávez, and it is unclear what a post-Chávez Venezuela would look like. Would his political party maintain its unity and continue Chávez’s ideology, or would another course be taken? In addition, the Venezuelan military has declared its support for Chávez to the point that some organizations are concerned as to what would happen if another political party were to win the upcoming presidential election. What this means for Tehran is that its closest ally in Latin America is not Venezuela but rather its leader, and it is difficult to foresee how diplomatic ties would be affected by a transition of leadership.
Late September 2011 saw an interesting development, as the Iranian government recognized mediation initiatives by Chávez to free two American hikers held in an Iranian prison since 2009.[xiii] According to statements by the Venezuelan Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Temir Porras, the Venezuelan government agreed to help Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal after receiving a request for help from the hiker’s friends. It has also been reported that Noam Chomsky signed a letter asking for Chávez’s help.[xiv]
Although various news sources have reported an increase in the establishment of Iranian embassies in Latin America, a Latin daily source indicates that, at least in the case of Nicaragua, such plans have failed to come to fruition. This is particularly interesting as there had been rumors circulating that Iran’s embassy in Managua is, or was supposed to be, some kind of massive intelligence hub involving an unusually large number of staff, which, by default, would put U.S. interests in the region at risk.[xv] In reality, the Iranian Embassy in the Central American country may be nothing more than somewhat large.
In mid-June, an Iranian analyst published a piece in the Iranian newspaper Jaam-e Jam entitled “Failure of the United States to break relations between Iran and Brazil.” The analyst explains that Iran’s initiatives in Latin America “change the quiet backyard of the United States to a dangerous backyard for that country, because the expansion of Iran’s economic and political relations with the countries of that region is indicative of the failure of U.S. efforts to impose sanctions and threats on Iran.”[xvi] The analyst also discusses how relations between Tehran and Latin America affect Israel:
Changing the United States’ quiet backyard to a dangerous backyard has also created major concerns for Tel Aviv, in addition to Washington. Such worries have intensified to the point that Shimon Peres, the head of the Zionist regime, left for a visit to Latin America, which is considered the first official visit of this sort to Latin America in the course of several decades, only a few days before the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.[xvii]
The bottom line seems to be that Latin America sees Iran’s involvement in the region in terms of economic interests. Additionally, it may allow the region to gain a foothold in the Muslim world, with the secondary benefit (at least possibly in Venezuela’s case) of reducing U.S. influence in the region. Meanwhile, as interpreted by the aforementioned Jaam-e Jam analysis, Tehran sees its rapprochement with Latin America mostly in terms of its impact on Washington and Tel Aviv.
Finally, it is interesting to observe that Brazil, Latin America’s powerhouse and a nation that is currently attempting to obtain a permanent seat on the United Nation Security Council, has also increased the pace of diplomatic ties with Iran. Brasilia has gone on record to declare its support for Tehran’s civilian – albeit controversial – nuclear program. It may soon become apparent to Itamaraty diplomats that they will have to choose between Washington and Tehran as their primary overseas partner.
In the interest of creating a just and prosperous hemispheric community, it is important for regional nations to continuously evaluate the scope and breadth of the burgeoning economic aid pacts and political gains being devised between Latin American countries and Iran. This survey must also include a gauging of the inherent merits of these gains and an evaluation of whether they are more fictive than real. A closer examination of the Islamic Republic of Iran depicts an undemocratic governing body heavily burdened by religious dogma, underdeveloped financial standards, institutional corruption and self-imposed non-transparency, a legal system hardly worthy of the name, the absence of any civil liberties, and atrocious human rights violations.
Iran’s current leadership can hardly be described as providing a suitable alternative to traditional U.S. domination and a sphere of influence. Even if counterbalancing U.S. power in Latin America can become more than a fantasy, and grow into a viable plan to amplify the resonance of democracy in the region, the advantages derived from an arrangement with Iran must be weighed against the costs of introducing another form of despotic influence into the democratically fledgling Latin American region.
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