Why is Iran interested in Latin America?
In January of 2012, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad conducted a four nation tour of Latin America, with stops in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Cuba and from the time that this trip became public, US government officials began asking “Why Latin America?”
In February, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on the “Tour of Tyrants” and during his testimony, Dr. Jose Azel of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami rhetorically asked the question “What allows the Iranian theocracy, so removed from Latin America by ethnicity, customs and values, to play an increasingly influential role in this hemisphere?” Perhaps the answer simply comes down to two factors: fear and opportunity. Fear that the United States will, at some point, see to the removal of the Iranian government. A fear that has existed since the Islamic Revolution and that has been made more acute since September 11 through both the Bush Doctrine and Iran’s inclusion in the 43rd President’s ‘Axis of Evil’.
That fear that has been solidified by the United States presence in the two neighboring states of Afghanistan and Iraq. The opportunity presented itself in the welcoming arms of Hugo Chavez. An opportunity that gave Iran, not just a friendly ally in the region, but a network of allies that would like nothing better than to oppose American interests. The opportunity to balance the US footprint in Middle East with an Iranian footprint in the western hemisphere.
While the details and the nuances of this geo-political situation are unique, they are not unprecedented. Following World War II, the United States began to stake out ground in a clear struggle against communism. The Truman Doctrine was adopted, signaling that the US would oppose Soviet expansion. The United States government made their distrust of the Soviets clear through the deployment of defensive missiles and the creation of NATO.
And through the 1950’s, the policies of the Eisenhower Administration, led by Secretary of State Dulles, made clear to the Soviets that the US would be very aggressive in halting the spread of communism. The rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba created the opportunity for the Soviets to, in their judgment, balance the power of the United States. They found an ally in the region who would like nothing better than opposing American interests.
The generalities of the circumstances surrounding these comparative geo-political struggles look eerily similar. However, to simply examine it superficially would be to miss the complexities that the current Iranian involvement in Latin America entails. Additionally, while the motivations for the Soviets of the 20th Century and the Iranians of today to export influence to the western hemisphere may be similar, the potential threat that exists for the US is very different.
The Soviet Union first saw Castro’s Cuba as a great ally in the western hemisphere. Their opposition to the US and desire to spread communism throughout Latin America could be a great asset because it would divide the attentions of US foreign policy makers. This led to the Soviet’s willingness to subsidize Cuba with oil and purchase products such as Cuban sugar to bolster the new Cuban government. The response of the Eisenhower Administration, which severed diplomatic ties with Cuba, and the Kennedy Administration, through the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, led the Soviets to take a calculated risk and attempt to install weapons in Cuba to protect their new benefactor.
Accounts released after the fall of the Soviet Union show that the Kremlin did not possess the desire to use these weapons against the US, especially not the nuclear weapons. While there may have been some radicals in Soviet circles who would have liked to launch an attack upon the United States, the decision makers saw the installation of weapons as an opportunity to threaten the US close to home and force the United States to pull back on its perceived aggressive policies towards them.
The risk associated with that calculation is now obvious as we know how perilously close the world came to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, as a result, the Soviet Union got what it wanted in the form of a de facto détente with the United States for the next 20 years. Perhaps that is the lesson that Iran has drawn from that event. The Chavez government in Venezuela has given them great access to the region through its partners in ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance) and the Iranian government has spent the last few years trying to strengthen those relationships.
In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in February, Norman Bailey stated that, at a time when their economy is suffering, “Iran’s declared investments in the region now stands at some $20 billion.” During the same forum, Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue said that, amongst other serious allegations of their actions in Latin America, “Iranian agents are sponsoring training camps for terrorists.”
Allegations also persist of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp training Venezuelan secret service and of Quds forces and Hezbollah operatives being granted wide operating liberty within Venezuela. Additionally, there have been numerous grand promises by the Iranian regime. For example, Tehran has declared that it would provide assistance for Nicaragua in building port facilities.
Most of these promises have been empty rhetoric and have gone unfulfilled. But what is Iran getting in return? At a functional level, Iran receives oil revenues and banking access through Venezuela that circumvents international sanctions. Iran receives intelligence and counter-intelligence capabilities from Cuba. And they receive safe havens in the western hemisphere where they can locate proxies to conduct a range of nefarious activities. If Iran has learned lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis, it also is aware that it is not in the same position of strength as the Soviet Union to go toe-to-toe with the United States. Therefore, its attempts to threaten the US in the western hemisphere cannot be overt, but must be covert.
There can be no large shipment of weapons, but they can utilize the type of force they have engaged in for years. Proxies such as Hezbollah and the Quds forces have been very effective at engaging Iranian enemies for years in covert and deniable ways. And these proxies are now operating in relatively un-governed regions of Latin America, where they are meeting and working with narco-terrorist organizations, such as the FARC in Colombia. Michael Braun testified that these relationships “will most assuredly evolve into strategically important inter-organizational relationships.”
The presence of these proxies, in combination with Iran’s continuing advance towards nuclear technology, is what makes the Iranian interest in Latin America so disturbing. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that he believes that Iran could be capable of producing a nuclear weapon within a year. If Iran ever finds itself in possession of a functional nuclear weapon, the regime might feel that is has the ability to balance the power of the US by threatening it close to home. The network would be in place for Iran to covertly move nuclear material from Iran to its proxy forces in Venezuela. From there, the relationships that have been created with the drug cartels would give them access to a vast network capable of moving that material anywhere the narco-terrorists operate.
There is no current evidence to suggest that Iran would be willing to move a “dirty bomb” through these networks. However, the willingness of narco-terrorist organizations to work with Iranian interests has already been proven by the 2011 plot by Iran to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington using, what they thought, were agents of the Mexican Zeta cartel. As James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, said before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “The United States no longer faces—as in the Cold War—one dominant threat. Rather, it is the multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats—and the actors behind them—that constitute our biggest challenge.” He also went on to say that “Iran’s willingness to sponsor future attacks in the United States or against our interests abroad probably will be shaped by Tehran’s evaluation of the costs it bears for the plot against the Ambassador as well as Iranian leaders perceptions of US threats against the regime.”
This possibility requires a measured US policy regarding Iran. A miscalculation on our part, or a misunderstanding of our intentions by the Iranians could, like during the Cuban Missile Crisis, bring us perilously close to catastrophe. Dr. James Blight, in an article on the Missile Crisis that he composed with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, argues that you must empathize with the mindset of your adversaries. The Soviets misunderstood our objectives and therefore reacted as if they were in a more desperate situation than they really were. If Iran believes itself to be in a desperate position, then they are much more likely to take radical steps. He also argues that we must empathize with the allies of our adversaries.
Understanding that there are radical elements that truly hate the US and understanding that defiance of the US is politically beneficial in some corners of the world, may help us see that not all actions of hostility are truly hostile. Viewed in this way, Iran’s engagement in Latin America is a very calculated move not simply based on mutual hatred of the United States. However, the radical nature of some of Iran’s proxies in Latin America adds a volatile element to diplomatic relations that require great care.
The understanding by US foreign policy makers that Iran’s actions may simply be a power play and not an imminent threat may help direct a more measured and nuanced response by the US that limits the possibility of Iranian aggression. As the Cuban Missile Crisis proved, the necessity to have a clear understanding of the nature of the conflict becomes paramount when nuclear technology is involved.