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Iran in Latin America: No More than a Nearby Nuisance, for now

By Negar Mortazavi and Caroline Tarpey, NIAC

Washington, DC - Latin American countries are sidling up to a new ally, and they're finding one-in Iran. Last week, panelists in the conference "Iran in Latin America: Threat or Axis of Annoyance?" at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars considered whether these relationships are trivial partnerships of convenience or budding bosom friendships that could threaten U.S. interests.

The panelists pointed out that the rapprochement between Iran and Latin America did not originate under current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, due to his "aggressive" foreign policy, which aims to defy attempts by the US and its allies to isolate Iran, Tehran now solicits Latin American support much more intently than before.

Panelists concurred that Venezuela is the vital vein in Iran's relations with Latin America. Farideh Farhi, current Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center, mentioned that the Iran-Venezuela alliance is "publicly touted as a poke in the eye of the United States;" it is a relationship that "annoys great Washington imperialism."

Iran wants to show the world that it is not isolated, Farhi continued, and relations with Venezuela, which has a shared opposition to the United States, build Iranian leverage. Elodie Brun, doctoral candidate in political science at the Institute d'Etudes Politiques echoed this statement in her presentation, pointing to a "shared hostile discourse about the U.S." However, "Iran is not in the driver's seat" in this relationship, Farhi underscored, and concluded that it is "too soon to say" if Iranian involvement with Venezuela or anywhere in Latin America will truly threaten U.S. interests.

Félix Maradiaga, former Secretary General of Nicaragua's Ministry of Defense, characterized the relationship between Iran and Nicaragua as one similarly grounded in "profoundly anti-U.S. discourse" that, like Iran's relationships with other Latin American countries, takes its cues from Iran's dealings with Venezuela. Yet, for now, U.S. aid may buy Nicaragua's loyalty. "There is no indication that [Iranian support] will be a short-run substitution for aid from Europe and North American empires," Maradiaga argued.

Hugo Alconada Mon, U.S. Bureau Chief of the Argentine newspaper, La Nacion, was more apprehensive about the implications of Iran's regional involvement. Recalling the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community in which Iranian-supported Hezbollah has been implicated, he commented that suspected Iranian support of terrorism in the tri-border region is a serious "source of concern for Washington."

Argentina is wary of both a third terrorist attack and of provoking the U.S., so it avoids close ties with Iran, Mon commented. At the same time, the U.S. is not a fast friend of Argentineans: 62% of Argentineans have an unfavorable view of the U.S. while only about half have a negative image of Iran, Mon said.

In contrast, Iran-Ecuador relations "have not been used to advance anti-Americanism," argued César Montúfar, professor at Quito's Universidad Andina Simón Bolίvar. Montúfar emphasized that the alliance is not unwavering, with Ecuador refraining from publicizing it much, while Iranian authorities have been vocal about their ties with Ecuador to emphasize their ability to overcome U.S. attempts to isolate Iran.

Were U.S.-Iran tensions to escalate, most of Iran's Latin American allies would offer little more than vocal support for Iran or condemnation of U.S. military action, Maradiaga and Farhi agreed. "Venezuela is the only Latin American country that could take actual action if a U.S.-Iran conflict unfolds," Maradiaga contended. In terms of tactical support Farhi said, "Iranians presumably have other easier to access tools in the rest of the world."

The Iranian-Venezuelan relationship, and by extension Iran's other regional relationships, are bolstered by what Brun called a "shared criticism of the U.S.," but most countries in the region also share a "dependency" on U.S. aid and support, which tempers their enthusiasm for dealings with Iran.

Yet, Iran's visibility in Latin America has clearly grown in recent years. According to Montúfar, Iran pursues relations with Latin American states as a sign of solidarity; "a gesture to [other] countries who feel attacked by the U.S."

Ultimately, Iran's desire for strategic alliances and political clout drives its actions. "Iran wants regional power and recognition," Farhi stated, "but it is not a large-scale threat." The trend of Iranian activity in Latin America may produce anti-U.S. rhetoric, but the panelists largely concluded that at least for now, Iran remains merely an "axis of annoyance."

... Payvand News - 07/25/08 ... --

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