Iran Courts Latin America

(International Relations and Security Network, 22/01/2007)


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent three days in Latin America this month seeking support from the region's anti-US leaders. What he found was political solidarity in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador - but little else. Still, though the Iranian president may have not found the vast support he was seeking, his trip was not without its significance.


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez facilitated the Iranian president's trip. That fact, along with the fact that Iran's geopolitical presence in Latin America has been established beyond Caracas has not gone unnoticed. Iran already has a fairly solid foundation in Venezuela, and there are signs that an embassy may soon appear in Nicaragua.


Furthermore, Chavez's willingness to broker introductions between Ahmadinejad and leaders in Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia will lay the groundwork for closer ties with three more Latin American countries.


What the US daily The New York Sun has called a "Marxist-Islamist entente" is little in terms of substantive agreements and relationships, but it has a future.


Chavez spent three days touring Latin America with Ahmadinejad, eager to prove to the US that his influence in the region extends beyond Venezuela. An unsuccessful bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, plus the loss of Chavez-backed presidential candidates in Mexico and Peru last year have left many speculating that Chavez's bid for regional control has failed. He is eager to reverse that line of thought.


Chavez also knows that the Iranian presence in Latin America makes Washington uneasy.


After the Iranian president's arrival in Venezuela, his host gave a welcoming speech, full of predictable revolutionary rhetoric and brotherly love. The two then retired to the Miraflores Presidential Palace and signed at least 29 agreements, the most substantial of which appears to be a joint US$2 billion fund to promote development in "anti imperialist" nations around the world.


The following day, Ahmadinejad received two state medals from Nicaragua's newly elected president, Daniel Ortega. The Nicaraguan daily El Nuevo Diario newspaper noted that the two countries would exchange embassies.


The presence of an Iranian embassy in Central America may be too close for comfort for Washington, but Ortega is eager to see the development dollars that will come with closer ties to Venezuela and Iran.


The final day of Ahmadinejad's tour led him to Ecuador, where he was greeted warmly by Bolivian President Evo Morales. However, neither Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva nor Argentine leader Nestor Kirchner chose to meet with the Iranian president.


Looking back on the three-day tour, it appears that though Iran has won a regional partner in Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia are keeping their distance for now. Ecuador's new President Rafael Correa would benefit little from closer ties with Iran. In Bolivia, Morales governs over an increasingly difficult constituency, with half of his country threatening secession. He hardly has time to entertain broader relations with Iran.


Meanwhile, the climate inside Iran shows signs of a resistance to closer ties with countries on the other side of the world as well. Iran's leading dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, claims Ahmadinejad has focused too much on anti-US rhetoric and not enough on Iran's economy.


Recently, Montazeri said Iranians had "so much oil and gas but [make] useless work for others and don't think of our own people's problems and the price of basic commodities go higher and higher every day."


According to the The International Herald Tribune, the price of a tomato in Iran has quadrupled, from €.59 (US76 cents) to €2.40 (US$3.10) due to rising inflation.


Montazeri also said the "government must forbid useless trips," clearly referring to Ahmadinejad's Latin American tour, and his second trip to Venezuela in under six months.


By courting Venezuela and other Latin American leaders, it is political support rather than economic deals that Iran seeks. Considered an international pariah state, Iran must work hard to maintain its relevance on the world stage. While Washington takes every opportunity to tarnish Iran's international reputation, Iran will take every opportunity to undermine Washington's influence around the world. Ahmadinejad may not have gained much on his last trip to Latin America, but he is far from finished with his engagement in the Western Hemisphere. And Chavez, for one, is happy to oblige.