Iran’s Links to Latin America

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Iran’s president during a 2007 visit to Nicaragua. (AP Photo)

Iran’s leader will not be visiting Latin America this week after all. The Iranian press reported that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a last-minute decision to indefinitely postpone his trip indefinitely in advance of his country’s elections. Still, the prospect of his visit to Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela has raised questions about Tehran’s influence in Latin America. During a May 1 Town Hall meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Iran’s inroads in the region “quite disturbing.”

Tehran’s warming ties with certain Latin American leaders comes as little surprise, given the much-trumpeted links already developed between Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The two leaders have visited each other multiple times, launched a joint “anti-U.S.” investment fund in 2007, and Iran holds observer status in Chávez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. More recently, the two countries signed a Memoranda of Understanding on military cooperation and they inaugurated their first joint bank in Tehran last month.

Tehran has strengthened ties with other countries in the region as well, from an energy agreement with Ecuador to more than $1 billion in industrial investments in Bolivia. Iran announced the opening of embassies in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Uruguay, as Samuel Logan notes in an analysis for ISN Security Watch penned when Ahmadinejad’s recent trip was still in the works. “The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua, and you can only imagine what it’s for,” said Clinton during her Friday remarks.

But Brazil was the main focus of this round of Latin American travel for Ahmadinejad, who planned to spend two days there. As Bloomberg reports, the presidential visit was to involve some 100 members of the Iranian public and private sectors to build on bilateral trade, which quadrupled to $2 billion between 2002 and 2007. Brazil’s Foreign Minister extended the invitation to Ahmadinejad during a November 2008 visit -the first by a Brazilian foreign minister to Tehran in 17 years. Just after that trip, Amorim told the Tehran Times that “Brazil does not recognize unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran,” referring to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. As the American Enterprise Institute notes, Brazil’s state-owned energy company Petrobras has signed exploration agreements for the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea. Yet Brazil has rejected an Iranian invitation to join the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

World Politics Review suggests that a “growing number of Arab countries have engaged in open diplomatic confrontation with Tehran,” leading Ahmadinejad to seek allies in other regions, such as Latin America. The Foreign Policy Association’s Rising Powers blog says the cancellation of the trip to Brazil may have stemmed from protests against his visit by Jewish groups in Brazil. Ahmadinejad instead headed to Damascus to talk about regional security issues with Syrian President Bashir Assad and may visit Brazil after Iran’s June 12 elections. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner continues to press for the handover of five former Iranian officials wanted by Interpol in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Also of concern are Hezbollah links in Latin America. In March, Admiral James Stavridis of the U.S. Southern Command warned the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee of “an increase in a wide level of activity by the Iranian government in this region. That is a concern principally because of the connections between the government of Iran, which is a state sponsor of terrorism, and Hezbollah.” Last week 17 people were arrested in Curaçao on suspicion of drug trafficking with funding linked to Hezbollah. Those arrested included suspects from Lebanon, Cuba, Venezuela, and Colombia.

COA’s Eric Farnsworth has provided commentary on Iran’s relationship with Latin America. Read an article he wrote on the subject in Poder, as well as remarks he delivered before the American Jewish Committee in Miami on the possibility of Islamic terrorism as an emerging threat in the region.

Send questions and comments for the editor to: [email protected].


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