Iran's Latin American Inroads

(International Relations and Security Network, 29/04/2009)


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to strengthen Iran’s Latin America ties with a visit to Brazil on 5-6 May and an expected stopover in Venezuela. Many Latin America watchers expect the Brazil visit to represent the first significant advancement of ties between the two countries in the areas of commerce and energy cooperation.


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez noted that the stopover was a “sign of respect” due to the two countries’ tightened relationship.


In Brazil, whose history with Iran is a relatively short one, President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva seeks to maintain a transparent, business-oriented posture.


By contrast, the Venezuelan-Iranian relationship dates back to the beginning of OPEC. When Chavez’s outspoken anti-US politics attracted the attention of Ahmadinejad, he decided the Venezuelan president would be an ally in Iran’s geopolitical goals to form a group of countries not aligned with the US. The number of so-called non-alignment countries grew in 2006 and 2007, as many left-of-center presidents took over in Latin America.


Opening the door


Chavez acted as a guide for Ahmadinejad during three days in January 2007, when Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa held their presidential inauguration ceremonies. It was a tour that solidified the “Marxist-Islamist” relationship between Venezuela and Iran, and opened the door for Iran to develop deeper ties with leaders across the region.


Since then, Chavez has awarded Iran observer status to his non-aligned trade group, the Bolivian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Iran has also announced the opening of embassies in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Uruguay.


The Iranian Embassy in Nicaragua (reportedly staffed with some 150 personnel) has attracted perhaps the most attention in Washington; it has been called one of the largest embassies in the region, despite Iran’s limited commercial ties there.


Moreover, Iran reportedly has promised Nicaragua US$1 billion in foreign aid and investments for agricultural and energy development, according to a working paper published by Ely Karmon for the Real Instituto Elcano (RIE), Madrid.


“Pressed by Chavez, Iran may become one of the leading financiers of a port on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua,” Ambassador Jaime Darenblum, a senior fellow and director of Latin American studies with the Hudson Institute, said in a recent telephone interview with ISN Security Watch.


Nicaragua received a US$231 million loan from Iran in 2007 to build a hydroelectric dam, and in August 2008, Ahmadinejad offered US$2 million to construct a hospital.


But it is not clear if Iran will come through on all of its economic promises, at least for Nicaragua.

“Ortega is in trouble because of [his relationship] with Iran,” Farideh Farhi, an independent researcher and currently an Affiliate Graduate Faculty of political science at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa, told ISN Security Watch in a recent telephone interview.


“[Ortega] said Iran has made promises and will come through, and Iran has not come through,” she added.


“I identify this as a policy shift rather than a strategic shift,” Farhi said when discussing Iran’s growing presence in the region.


“I simply cannot believe this to be a sustainable policy over a long period of time because of the finances involved,” she added, saying that it was hard to believe that Iran would actually have 150 officials at its Nicaraguan Embassy.


In South America, Iran and Venezuela together invested US$230 million in a cement company in Bolivia. Iran has also funded two health clinics in the Andean country, and there have been reports of Iranian milk factories and cheese processing plants.


Iran opened a commercial bureau in Quito in the summer of 2008, and Ecuador reciprocated by opening a commercial office in Tehran. Months later, Correa and Ahmadinejad signed a craft of commercial agreements, and Iran offered to assist with the development and construction of a refinery in southern Ecuador.


Clearly, Iran’s focus has been on those countries most closely associated with its affinity for non-alignment, and as Iran continues to strengthen relationships, more Iranian doctors, diplomats, teachers, businessmen and officials are arriving in Latin America.


Hizbollah activities, blurry at best


Some analysts are sounding the alarm bells, suggesting that Iran’s inroads into Latin America should be considered in tandem with the presence of Hizbollah in the region.


Fears largely stem from the 1992 and 1994 bombings in Buenos Aires, which many, including the Argentine government, have blamed on Hizbollah.


The more moderate analysts will warn that Hizbollah may be using Latin America as a financing center.  


“The general premise,” Ambassador Darenblum said, “is that where ever Iran goes, Hizbollah goes with [them] because they do the dirty work for the Iranians.”


Others suggest that Hizbollah could attack soft targets in the region, as suggested by a former US intelligence official who spoke to ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity.


“My concern is [Hizbollah’s] ability to train people and bring them over [to Latin America] and keep them under diplomatic protection until they’re ready to do what they’re going to do,” Douglas Farah, an investigative consultant with the NEFA Foundation, told ISN Security Watch.


Others disagree with this assessment, saying there is no real evidence of any significant sinister activity on the part of Hizbollah in the region.


According to ISN Security Watch’s Middle East expert, Dr Dominic Moran, “Latin America is likely a very low profile area both economically and in terms of potential attacks on Jewish or Israeli targets for Hizbollah despite the previous Buenos Aires strikes (which occurred when the organization had different priorities) - with the Sinai, West Bank and other areas closer to home presenting more easy and attractive targets.”


Farah believes that Hizbollah’s presence is not a trigger for terrorism, just a geopolitical insurance policy.


“A Hizbollah attack in Latin America is a contingency plan, not an offensive weapon,” he said.


Financing Hizbollah


As far as financing activities are concerned, some reports consider that Hizbollah might already be in league with some of the region’s most powerful organized criminal groups. The Washington Times reported in March 2009 that Hizbollah “is strengthening its ties to Mexican drug cartels.”

“They'll leverage those relationships to their benefit, to smuggle contraband and humans into the US; in fact, they already are [smuggling],” Michael Braun, formerly the assistant administrator and chief of operations at the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told the Washington Times.

At the Interpol Americas conference, held at the beginning of April in Chile, Secretary General Ronald Noble said that cocaine trafficking in the Americas was used to finance Hizbollah.


In October 2008, DEA agents and Colombian officials broke up a drug smuggling and money laundering ring with at least three individuals who shipped a percentage of the money earned from the operation to Hizbollah contacts in Lebanon, according to a Los Angeles Times story.


The three suspects, Chekry Harb (aka Taliban), Ali Mohamad Abdul Rahim and Zacaria Hussein Harb, operated front companies to send the laundered cash to their Hizbollah contacts, officials alleged. Chekry Harb, the head of the operation “washed” hundreds of millions a year through an international operation that spanned from Panama to Hong Kong.


“I think there maybe an effort underway to formalize what was an informal network of people out there kicking money back into something more coherent,” Farah said.


The US Department of Treasury froze the assets of two Venezuelan nationals with suspected ties to Hizbollah on 17 June 2008. Fawzi Kan’an, who lived in Venezuela and operated two travel agencies, allegedly brought Hizbollah operatives to Venezuela and discussed kidnappings and terrorist attacks with senior Hizbollah officials in Lebanon.


The other Venezuelan, Ghazi Nasr al-Din, was a diplomat based in Lebanon who used his connections in the Middle East to raise funds for Hizbollah. Two of the group's representatives traveled to Caracas in January 2006 to seek donations and announce the opening of a Hizbollah-sponsored community center and office in Caracas. Nasr al-Din facilitated this trip, according to allegations.


The future of relations


The connections between Iran and many countries in Latin America are no longer in dispute. Mosques, schools, health clinics, Iranian factories, embassies, commercial centers, and a long list of other, smaller Islamic organizations have been installed and running for some years now. 

The relationship between Ahmadinejad and Chavez is another important consideration.

Once Ahmadinejad is out of office, likely long before Chavez steps out of power, the strongest link between Iran and Latin America will be broken. Any further social, economic, or diplomatic growth between Iran and the region could wither if Iran’s foreign policy focus shifts from Latin America to somewhere else.