What Lurks Behind Iran’s Involvement in Latin America?

AP Photo/Leslie Mazoch
By Massimiliano Fiore

Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005, Iran has been promoting an aggressive policy aimed at expanding its diplomatic and economic influence across Latin America.

Over the past several years, it has in fact opened six new embassies throughout the region (Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Uruguay) in addition to the five already in operation and has brokered significant economic deals, signing away billions of dollars in more than two hundred bilateral agreements with Venezuela and promising hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and investments to Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

However, Iran’s past support of terrorism in Latin America and recalcitrant cooperation with international inspectors on its nuclear programme, combined with the fact that most of these agreements and promises have not been followed up, have raised deep concerns not only in the US but also in Europe.

Recent western intelligence reports have in fact indicated that Iran’s increasing diplomatic and economic involvement in Latin America is merely a cover for more sinister designs. Allegations abound that Bolivia and Venezuela are supplying Iran with uranium designated for its nuclear programme and that Iran is using a number of plants and factories in remote parts of Venezuela for the storage of narcotics and the production of weapons. Norman Bailey, President of the Institute for Global Economic Growth, claims that “most of these installations are designed to facilitate and provide cover for illegal and subversive endeavours”, which particularly involve the Iranian Government, but also Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and drug cartels from Colombia and Mexico. It is widely believed that profits from the sale of cocaine are used to finance both Iran’s penetration into Latin America and Hezbollah’s operations in the region.

The allegation that Iran-backed Hezbollah cells are now running training camps, complete with ammunitions and explosives, not only in the Tri-Border Area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, but also in the Guajira Peninsula between Colombia and Venezuela, is another source of great concern. The alarm largely stems from the proven role played by Iran and Hezbollah in the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Argentinean Jewish Mutual Association in 1994, which caused 118 deaths and more than 500 injuries.

There is also concern as to what role supportive governments like Venezuela might play in allowing Iran to evade international sanctions and advance its nuclear programme. According to Douglas Farah, a Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Centre, President Hugo Chávez’ decision to allow Iran to establish the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo provided Teheran with “a foothold into the Venezuelan banking system” and “a perfect sanctions-busting method”.

Another cause of deep concern are the flights connecting Caracas, Damascus and Tehran. Though apparently commercial, in reality accept no commercial passengers and unload their official passengers/cargo without any immigration/customs controls. Western intelligence reports have suggested that these flights are a covert means for Venezuela to help Iran send Syria scientific material and machinery for the manufacture of missiles - and for Iran to provide Venezuela with members of the Quds Force, an elite special operations unit within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who help Venezuela’s secret service and police against its domestic opposition.

So what, in the last analysis, really does lurk behind Iran’s increasing involvement in the region?

One conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing would seem to be that Iran’s presence in Latin America is political and not economic. It is primarily aimed at overcoming US attempts to isolate Tehran politically and economically and countering pressures from the West to stop it from developing its nuclear capabilities. Iran’s successful penetration in the region, however, cannot be understood without taking into consideration the shift to the left in many Latin American countries. It was the rise of radical governments employing strong anti-American rhetoric and advocating an anti-US agenda in the first decade of the twenty-first century that provided Iran with an audience receptive to its overtures. Some analysts also believe that by taking advantage of this apparent US weakness in the region, Iran could counter-attack Washington in its own hemisphere either directly or with Hezbollah’s assistance. Bearing in mind that Latin America has already paid the price for Iran’s support of terrorism, Tehran’s activity in Latin America is a “bad omen” for the future of the region and should not be underestimated.

 

16 November 2010

 

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Leslie Mazoch

 

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