Iran in Latin America: Threat or Axis of Annoyance?

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The purpose of this conference is to provide a balanced and dispassionate overview of Iran’s relations with Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, put in the context of the foreign policy objectives and strategies of those Latin American nations as well as the strategic objectives of the Iranian government. In addition, we aim to explore what has been alleged about Iranian involvement in the bombings of the Jewish community center (AMIA) and the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.

 Farideh Farhi , Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, argued that while Iran’s increased attention to Latin America as a region is a relatively new development, its bilateral ties with some individual Latin American nations are long-standing and relatively robust. Iran has shared an ideological relationship with Cuba since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, and a political relationship with Venezuela since their co-founding of OPEC in the 1960s. The impetus behind these long-standing bilateral relationships is three-fold: First, Iran’s non-aligned position in foreign policy has compelled it to seek out countries with similar ideological outlooks. Second, determined efforts by the United States at keeping Iran in diplomatic and economic isolation have forced it to pursue an active foreign policy. Finally, the election of a reformist president in 1997 made it possible for countries like Brazil to engage Iran with enough confidence to withstand pressures from the United States.

Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election to the presidency, however, Tehran’s relations with Latin America have become highly publicized and have focused on mutual opposition to U.S. policies. Relations with Venezuela are touted as a “poke in the eye” to the United States, with the hope of producing economic benefits, influence (for Iran and Venezuela), and angst (for the United States). Iran has also sought highly publicized relationships with Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, promising lucrative investments, including, for example, a $350 million deepwater seaport off Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast, and a “dry canal” of pipelines, rails and highways across the country. Farhi argues, however, that the new-found intensity of these relationships is unsustainable. The recent iteration of Iran’s relations in Latin America is based on political opportunism, as a diplomatic thorn in America’s side, rather than a more long-term economic or military partnership. Already, the proposed deepwater seaport is facing resistance in Nicaragua by land right activists. Iran’s real commitment to this project is also not clear and Tehran has so far refused to forgo Nicaragua’s $152 million debt, despite Ortega’s specific request that it do so. Ultimately, Farhi predicts that while bilateral relations between Iran and individual Latin American countries will continue to gradually improve, based on economic give and take and a degree of shared commitment to non-alignment, the intensely vitriolic character of current relations would not continue past Ahmadinejad’s term in office.

Elodie Brun of the Institut d’Études Politiques, Paris, noted that Iran and Venezuela are, respectively, the second and fourth largest oil producers in OPEC. Although the historical relationship between the two countries stretches back over many decades (both were founders of OPEC in the 1960s), relations have intensified since the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005. Between 2005 and 2007, each president visited the other’s country three times and commercial relations have vastly expanded: trade, which amounted to $1.1 million in 2004, grew to $50.7 million in 2006. According to Brun, both countries are benefiting from-and promoting–high oil rents, using oil as a political instrument to insert themselves internationally in a way that both characterize as revolutionary. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and President Ahmadinejad embrace a rhetoric emphasizing autonomy and independence from the great powers, primarily the United States but also Europe, citing unity in the struggle against imperialism and capitalism. Hostility to the United States, and particularly to the administration of George W. Bush, is what most binds the foreign policies of the two countries together. Brun argued that Chávez has served as Ahmadinejad’s “port of entry” into Latin America, reinforcing Chavez’s own leadership role while helping Iran step out of its international isolation. Venezuela has helped forge relationships with Venezuelan allies such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua and has also defended Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Beyond the political realm, Venezuela has turned to Iran as a source of investment for infrastructure and industrial development, including in the oil and petrochemicals sectors.
A large gap, nonetheless, separates the signing and actual implementation of cooperation agreements, and coming years will demonstrate whether many of the proposed projects are viable, particularly if oil income declines from its current high.

 Hugo Alconada Mon , Washington correspondent of the Argentine daily La Nación, cited evidence linking groups affiliated with Hezbollah, a Lebanese fundamentalist group, to the terrorist bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and of the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994. Investigations by Argentine judicial authorities have concluded that the attacks were masterminded and orchestrated by Hezbollah with Iranian backing. The U.S. and Israeli governments have also alleged Iranian involvement in the attacks. Although investigations have been ongoing, no one involved in either of the attacks has been brought to justice, and the court cases have been marred by improprieties. One Argentine federal judge overseeing the AMIA investigation was impeached and removed from his post for gross irregularities, including the falsification of evidence. Two other federal prosecutors dropped the case and all three are currently under investigation for the cover up of evidence. The Iranian government has insisted that judicial corruption in Argentina, not Iran’s lack of cooperation, accounts for the failure to arrest the masterminds of the attack, and has accused “Zionist lobbies” of making unfounded accusations against Iran. Lebanon’s ambassador to Argentina has called Hezbollah’s participation in the AMIA attack a theory reinforced “by the political motivation of Israel and the United States.”

In May 2006, the Argentine Supreme Court annulled the findings of the lower courts, criticizing the inefficiency of Argentina’s intelligence services and the lack of legal bodies to investigate terrorism cases. The Court reaffirmed, nonetheless, the allegations of Iranian involvement and called for the arrest of 14 current and former Iranian government officials. Other arrest warrants have been issued for former President Carlos Menem as well as senior Argentine intelligence and police officials for their alleged role in covering up evidence in the AMIA case and protecting those responsible. In 2007 Interpol approved orders for the arrest of five Iranian officials and a Lebanese national. Former Argentine President Néstor Kirchner accused Iran of failing to fully cooperate with the Argentine judicial authorities.

 Félix Maradiaga , Senior Researcher, Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policies (IEEPP) in Nicaragua, discussed the underpinnings of recent agreements between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. According to Maradiaga, Nicaragua’s foreign policy strongly correlates with Venezuela’s, and any Latin American relationship with Iran is conducted through Caracas. Both Ahmadinejad and Ortega made state visits to each other’s countries, resulting in Iranian promises of some $1 billion in aid and investment. The funds are to be used to develop the energy and agricultural sectors, infrastructure, and water purification in Nicaragua. The largest project establishes a deep water port on Nicaragua’s eastern shores, which would require an investment of $350 million. The proposed projects create the appearance of strong economic ties between the two nations. However, Maradiaga stated that there was little evidence that the aid and investment would materialize. He doubted that the relationship– held together by the anti-Americanism espoused by leaders of both countries–would deepen beyond the ideological and political level.

 César Montúfar of the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador, discussed diplomatic and commercial ties between Ecuador and Iran. Prior to 2007, ties were minimal, and neither country had diplomatic or commercial offices in the capital of the other. Trade has been minimal; in 2000, 2006, and 2007, no Ecuadorian exports reached Iran, and in 2003, the year of highest trade, Ecuador’s total exports to Iran valued $ 2.5 million. Montúfar stated that Ahmadinejad’s short and surprising visit to Rafael Correa’s presidential inauguration spawned a new and short-lived bilateral relationship between the two countries. Correa maintained that the relationship was not political but based solely on commercial interests. There is little evidence of a growing commercial relationship between Quito and Tehran. According to Montúfar, the ties between Ecuador and Iran were established because of Ecuador’s relationship with Venezuela. But, Montúfar argued, Venezuela’s influence in Ecuador is declining, which has been followed by similar decreases in the Iran-Ecuador relationship.


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