Iran increases its political and economic presence in Latin America, defying the United States and attempting to undermine American hegemony.

Issued on: 08/04/2009 Type: Article


Iranian president Ahmadinejad and greets Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez
Iranian president Ahmadinejad and greets Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez on his arrival in Iran.
Their summit meeting was held at the same time as the G-20 meeting
(Raheb Homavandi for Reuters, April 2, 2009).

Overview

1. Since Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran in August 2005, there has been a marked improvement in the country's relations with Latin America , especially Venezuela and Bolivia . The common denominators are their anti-American ideology and the desire to provide a satisfactory revolutionary alternative to what they consider American imperialism. Iran exploits its relations with Latin America to establish a foothold (using, among other means, Hezbollah) and to establish a political, economic, religious and terrorist-intelligence presence in the region.

2. The springboard for Iranian influence, and the figure marketing Iran to other Latin American countries, is Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez , a leader in anti-American defiance. Chavez has met with Ahmadinejad a number of times in both Tehran and Caracas , and in effect opened Venezuela – and later Bolivia , Nicaragua and Ecuador – to the Iranians. Latin American leaders who were almost unknown in Tehran until Ahmadinejad was elected have become familiar faces, and their relations with Iran are blooming.

3. Iran 's increased activity in Latin America is part of its overall strategy , and its goals go far beyond the desire to achieve hegemony in the Middle East . Iran , which regards itself as besieged by the United States and stubbornly conducts a nuclear crisis with the West, seeks to pose a revolutionary challenge to America in its own back yard, as well as in various areas of Asia and Africa . To that end Tehran exploits its relative advantages of anti-American ideology and rhetoric. The Iranians use as political leverage petrodollars and Muslim populations, some of them Shi'ite-Lebanese, living in key Latin America countries and potentially able to advance Iranian interests.

4. Those interests, which lie behind Iran 's desire to strengthen relations with Latin America , are:

i) To improve Iran 's strategic position vis-à-vis the United States by posing a potential threat and creating a kind of balance of power which will challenge America by collaborating with revolutionary countries in Latin America and establishing a significant presence on their soil. Iranian assets in Latin America may be used practically in the dialogue the Obama administration is trying to advance with Iran to settle the nuclear crisis.

ii) Economically , to erode the sanctions imposed on Iran through new markets. That can be done by coordinating prices with the major oil exporting countries ( Iran and Venezuela are respectively the fourth and fifth largest exporters of oil in the world). That also can be done by cooperation in refining crude oil should the sanctions against Iran be ramped up, since Iran has difficulties in refining its own oil and is completely dependent on imported distillates.

iii) To damage Israel 's relations with Latin American countries , for example the severing of Israel 's diplomatic relations with both Venezuela and Bolivia during Operation Cast Lead. In addition, such a situation creates an internal political climate which encourages attacks on Jewish communities in Latin America , as witnessed by the vandalizing of the largest synagogue in Caracas , the capital of Venezuela.

Graffiti on the wall of the Caracas synagogue
"Get out!” Graffiti on the wall of the Caracas synagogue
(Photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins for Reuters, January 31, 2009).

iv) To create intelligence and terrorism networks which will provide Iran with operational options to respond to events or initiate terrorist attacks against Israel and the United States, under the right circumstances when the order is given.1 Iran uses its proxy Hezbollah , whose activities and presence are widespread and increasing in Latin America , including in ordinary crime such a drug dealing.

v) To spread Iranian, Khomeini-inspired Shi'ite Islam to the non-Muslim communities in Latin America, and at the same time to disseminate the ideology of the Iranian Islamic revolution and Iranian political influence in Muslim communities, especially Shi'ite-Lebanese (part of Iranian activities around the world).

5. As it does in the Middle East , in Latin America Iran uses terrorism and subversion to advance its aims. And as in the Middle East and elsewhere, the main Iranian operational arm is the Revolutionary Guards . The Revolutionary Guards assist Hezbollah, whose activities in Latin America began before Ahmadinejad , and serve as its proxy for constructing terrorist networks. Hezbollah raises the funds necessary for maintaining the terrorist networks in Lebanon and Latin America and connections with local criminal cartels, such as those in the Gran Chaco triangle bordered by Brazil , Argentina and Paraguay , Venezuela 's Margarita Island and among the drug cartels of Colombia and Mexico . During the 1990s Hezbollah and Iran 's terrorist networks in Argentina were used to carry out two mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires (the bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and of the AMIA building in 1994) in retaliation for the blows suffered by Hezbollah in Lebanon .

6. The United States is well aware of the threats and challenges posed by Iran 's activities in Latin America . That was recently made evident by a series of statements from senior American figures working in the military, the intelligence community and the State Department about the dangers of Iranian activity. For example, in January 2009 Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense , told the Senate that he was "more concerned about Iranian meddling in the region than [about] the Russians [meddling in the same region].” Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence , told the Senate Armed Forces Committee in March 2009 that Chavez's growing ties with Iran and the corruption prevalent in Venezuela were creating a convenient environment which Hezbollah could exploit for its own uses. James Stavridis, Commander of the US Southern Command , told the Senate Armed Forces Committee in March 2009 that there had been an increase in the level of Iranian activity, including the opening of six new embassies in Latin America during the past five years and extensive activities concerning religious conversion [i.e., conversion to Shi'ite Islam] in the region. He said that it "is a concern principally because of the connections between the government of Iran , which is a state sponsor of terrorism, and Hezbollah...”

7. As far as Israel is concerned, Iran 's activity in Latin America is a wasps' nest of short-term and potential long-term threats . Politically , Iran 's activity is liable to sabotage Israel 's relations with Latin American countries, as has already occurred with Venezuela and Bolivia . It also encourages physical manifestations of anti-Semitism targeting local Jewish communities, as occurred in Caracas , Venezuela . With regard to terrorism , Iran exploits its growing ties with Latin American countries to construct local terrorist networks , using the Revolutionary Guards and its own intelligence services, with Hezbollah as its proxy. In our assessment, the networks are already in place and some of them are operative. Twice during the 1990s they carried out suicide bombing attacks in Argentina and are liable to be used in the future for retaliatory attacks within the more limited Israeli-Lebanese-Palestinian context or even against Israel as part of Iran's overall confrontation with the United States and Israel, for example in the scenario of escalating the nuclear crisis.

8. The objective of this study is to examine the various aspects of Iranian policy in Venezuela and in Latin America in general. The study illustrates the dangers and challenges inherent in the situation for Israel , and even more so for the United States and the West. It is divided as follows:

i) Iranian activity in Latin America, America 's back yard.

ii) The presidents of Iran and Venezuela : a new revolutionary vision.

iii) Petrodollars and economic cooperation as levers of political influence.

iv) Harnessing Latin American policy to Iran 's Middle Eastern agenda.

v) The Tehran-Caracas-La Paz axis.

vi) Ecuador as a target for Iranian activity.

vii) Seminars in Iran on Latin America .

viii) Latin America as a target for the spread of Shi'ite Islam and the export of the Iranian Islamic revolution's ideology.

ix) The Wayuu tribe and Hezbollah Venezuela as a case study.

x) Using electronic media for propaganda in Latin America .

xi) Crime and terrorism in the service of Hezbollah and Iran in Latin America .

xii) Rising worries in the United States .



1 A recent example of the dangers posed by such terrorist networks is the Hezbollah network exposed by the Egyptians.

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