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Fears of Iranian influence in Latin America are way overblown

If anything is opening the door for Tehran to the Western Hemisphere, it’s failed US policy.

Analysis | Middle East

The former president of Colombia Ivan Duque, while on a visit to Israel in the end of May, sounded an alarm about Iran enjoying an “increasingly friendly environment” in Latin America that amounts to a threat to security and democracy in the Western Hemisphere.

Duque’s concerns, who as president (2018-2022) was a staunch U.S. ally, are widely shared among the hawkish wings of both Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S., notably by figures like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee. These fears, however, are overblown and, to the extent that Iran has been able to expand influence in Latin America, it is mostly due to misguided U.S. policies.

Duque and his U.S. supporters correlate Iran’s supposed new-found depth in the Western Hemisphere with the spread of the left-leaning governments in Latin America. In the last few years leftist candidates have won elections in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Honduras. However, at a closer look, Iran’s relations there are largely limited to Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. That is not a new development. Iran’s ties with Venezuela — the most significant of the three due to its size, geographical position at the intersection of the Caribbean, Central and South America, and abundant energy resources — gained momentum back in 2000s, under the presidency of Hugo Chavez. Beyond these countries, with which Tehran shares strong anti-U.S. stance and the need to resist the U.S. sanctions, Iran’s inroads in Latin America were rather modest.

It is true that, in addition to the mentioned trio, Iran managed to achieve some headway with Bolivia. Relations with Brazil, under the first presidency of Luiz Inacio da Silva (2003-2010) were also on the rise. Yet, more than ideological affinity, ties with the South American giant abided to the logic of diplomatic diversification to include ascendant powers in an increasingly multipolar world.

For Brazil, on the other hand, Iran presented an opportunity to burnish its newly found ambition to play a globally relevant diplomatic role — that materialized in Lula mediating, together with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a nuclear agreement with Iran in 2010. The agreement, had it been accepted by the permanent UN Security Council members back then, would have set the Iranian nuclear program back much earlier than the JCPOA did, which was concluded in 2015. Lula’s foreign policy since the re-election in late 2022 confirms the trend towards greater multipolarity and independence from the U.S. That may benefit Iran in international organizations like the UN, but it hardly amounts to a deepening Iran’s influence in Brazil itself.

On a broader note, contrary to what Duque implies, there is little evidence that even the avowedly leftist governments in Latin America are particularly pro-Iranian. Brazil under Lula allowed an Iranian military ship to dock in the port of Rio de Janeiro for three days in February 2023. That this rather trivial act has ignited a fury of angry responses from the Sen. Cruz and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal only underscores how over-hyped the “Iranian threat” in the Western Hemisphere really is. 

Otherwise, the outgoing leftist government in Argentina did not remove Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese ally, from the national terrorist list where it was placed by its right-wing predecessor. There is, so far, no indication that Colombia’s leftist president Gustavo Petro would revoke the similar designation made by his rightist predecessor Ivan Duque.

The reality is that Iran — unlike China — has limited resources to offer its potential counterparts in Latin America. As noted, the relationships it managed to forge there are mostly with a restricted number of countries. And those were unwittingly facilitated, in not a small degree, by the U.S. policies.

Take Venezuela. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Biden administration sent emissaries to Caracas to negotiate a potential reboot of relations with what Washington considered an illegitimate government of Nicolas Maduro. What triggered that seeming about face was the need to diversify oil imports in the wake of the ban on oil and gas imports from Russia. Washington even allowed U.S. oil giant Chevron to resume its operations in Venezuela.

Maduro signaled his readiness to move towards normalization of relations with the U.S. Yet this budding détente was never pursued consistently. In a deliberate diplomatic snub, the U.S. excluded Venezuela, alongside Cuba and Nicaragua, from the Summit of Americas it hosted in Los Angeles in June 2022, due to their authoritarian governance. Not only did the countries concerned feel slighted, but others, like Mexico, also saw in this exclusion a painful reminiscence of Washington’s historically heavy-handed meddling in Latin American affairs.

The exclusion of Maduro was likely linked to a U.S. commitment to the opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela, even though it has long become apparent that he lacked credible prospects of achieving any effective power. In the end, even the Venezuelan opposition itself discarded Guaido in December 2022, but Washington stuck with him until that very last moment, thus wasting an opportunity to abandon its demonstrably failed Venezuela policy. It’s no wonder, then, that Maduro sought to expand relations with players deemed useful to breaking his international isolation, and Iran — similarly fighting isolation and sanctions — seemingly saw an opportunity to join forces with Venezuela.

U.S. policies towards Cuba are another example of an enduring, and pointless, hostility. After years of Donald Trump piling up new sanctions against the embattled island, President Biden could have returned to the policies of the détente pursued by his former boss Barack Obama. Yet Biden’s Cuba policy has turned out to be much more like Trump’s than Obama’s.

In 2023, the U.S. again included Cuba into the list of the state sponsors of terrorism, from which it was removed by Obama, only to be reinstated by Trump. That designation was all the more absurd because the alleged reason behind it — the safe haven offered by Havana to two members of the National Army of Liberation of Colombia, a guerrilla group, wanted on terrorism charges in their home country — was no longer applicable as the new Colombian President Gustavo Petro decided to resume the peace negotiations with that group and, as a confidence building measure, ceased demanding their extradition. The State Department ignored that move by the Colombian government and kept Cuba in its state sponsors of terrorism list, alongside North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

Likewise, regarding Nicaragua, the U.S. continues pursuing its single-track sanctions policies. As with Venezuela and Cuba, this policy may go down well with the hawkish Latino population in Florida, but evidence suggests they actually strengthen those in power, such as Venezuela’s Maduro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, more than they advance the cause of democracy and human rights in those nations. Of course, such policies create more openings for Iran — U.S. intelligence unveiled talks between Nicaragua and Iran on deepening their security and military cooperation based on a common effort to oppose U.S. influence.

If Duque and his U.S. backers are indeed worried about perceived expansion of Iranian influence in Latin America — as exaggerated as it is — they should advocate, first and foremost, for the U.S. to abandon its failed policies that continue to alienate Latin American nations for no discernible gain for the U.S. and its allies in the region.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 2020 (Photo: VOA)
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