The Washington Diplomat / February 2012
By Larry Luxner
Caracas, Havana, Quito, La Paz and Managua all boast famous Catholic cathedrals, colonial architecture worthy of UNESCO world heritage status and, most recently, Iranian embassies flying the green-and-white flag of the Islamic republic — at a time when Tehran has few real friends left in the world.
In early January, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his other Spanish-speaking amigos just as the 27-member European Union debated whether to slap a ban on Iranian oil imports to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, the latest in an escalating campaign of sanctions (and possibly high-tech sabotage and assassinations) that’s tightening the economic vise on Tehran.
Ratcheting up the saber rattling, Ahmadinejad has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly one-fifth of the world’s crude oil is shipped.
Not a particularly opportune moment for the Iranian head of state to take off on a whirlwind junket of Latin America, but analysts say the timing of the five-day trip to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador was no coincidence.
“I think it reveals how desperate Iran is,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “Iran is being squeezed, and that’s led to a sense of economic desperation. So if the best they can do is to show they have alliances with Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador, it suggests that they’re not in very good shape.”
Neither Francisco Campbell, Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United States, nor Nathalie Cely Suárez, Ecuador’s newly appointed ambassador here, could be reached for comment. Cuba has no full-fledged embassy in Washington, and Venezuela’s former ambassador here, Bernardo Alvarez, was barred from returning to the United States in 2010 after going home for Christmas — yet another sign of the dismal state of bilateral diplomatic relations. (Alvarez had already been declared persona non grata by the Bush administration but permitted to resume his post after Obama took office).
Ahmadinejad’s high-profile trip — his sixth official visit to Latin America — certainly generated the attention he most likely craved, with the goal ostensibly to show that the embattled Iranian leader was still a powerful world player, and not an impotent pariah. It also probably gave him a welcome escape from mounting troubles back home: Sanctions are hitting Iran’s economy hard, with the value of the country’s currency plummeting.
Meanwhile, food and home prices, along with public discontent, have been rising. Ahmadinejad also faces political pressure from the reformist opposition as well as a deepening gulf between him and the ruling Islamic clerics, including the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And Iran’s regional ally Syria has been besieged by protests that threaten to collapse its government.
None of that seemed to faze Ahmadinejad, though, as he mocked U.S. attempts to blunt Iran’s nuclear program during his stop with Chávez. “They say that we are building bombs. Ignorant people would probably ask themselves what is really happening. Fortunately, the people of Latin America are awake and know the truth behind all those words,” he declared.
But Shifter says Ahmadinejad has proven to be a lot more empty words than action when it comes to the region.
“Latin America is pursuing new global partners, and naturally there’s been some expectation that Iran will come through with investments,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “But if one looks at the record, they haven’t delivered. It’s fundamentally more of a geopolitical alliance than anything else, a message to Washington that Iran is still a force to be reckoned with.”
Yet some inside the Beltway are taking that message far more seriously than others — though their motives are a matter of debate.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blasted Ahmadinejad’s “tour of tyrants” shortly before the Iranian leader received the red-carpet treatment in Caracas.
“Ahmadinejad’s desire to strengthen ties with anti-American dictators and expand Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere directly threatens U.S. security interests, and continues a trend also followed by previous Iranian leaders,” said Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American exile who bitterly opposes any weakening of Washington’s 50-year-old embargo against Cuba.
“Iran has extensive defense and economic partnerships with the Castro, Chávez, Ortega and Correa regimes that endanger democracy and stability in the region,” she warned in a statement. “The Iranian-backed extremist group Hezbollah has also expanded its activities throughout the region since the 1994 AMIA attacks in Argentina, which Iran was behind. This is a threat which we cannot ignore.”
But is the threat being overhyped? Ros-Lehtinen is the same congresswoman who, several months ago, issued a similar statement loudly accusing Cuba of harboring Hezbollah training camps — an allegation that was never proven, and that was later allowed to quietly die.
What hasn’t died is the speculation over Iran’s budding ties with leftist Latin governments, which has evolved into something of a cottage industry in Washington, with think tanks routinely sounding the alarm about Iran (and by extension its proxy Hezbollah) in America’s backyard. The alarm has been going off for a while: A congressional briefing on “Radical Islamic Activity in Latin America,” for instance, issued dire warnings on the rise of Hezbollah cells in the region. That briefing was co-sponsored by Ros-Lehtinen at the beginning of 2007.
From a diplomatic point of view, there’s no question that Iran has dramatically expanded its presence south of the Rio Grande. Six new Iranian embassies have opened since Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 — in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Uruguay — and its embassies in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela have been enlarged. These missions are guarded by soldiers of the elite Quds Force, the same outfit U.S. officials say was behind a recently exposed plot to allegedly hire Mexican drug cartels to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Jaime Daremblum, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Latin American Studies, has for years been warning about Iran’s penchant for terrorism in panels such as “Venezuelistan: Iran’s Latin American Ambitions.”
“Three years ago, the U.S. Treasury Department accused the Venezuelan government of ‘employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers,’” Daremblum, the former Costa Rican ambassador in Washington, wrote in a recent op-ed for Real Clear World. “With its failed scheme to murder the Saudi ambassador, Tehran graduated to a new level of violent audacity.”
“Tehran has established a strategic alliance with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, and it has also developed warm relations with Chávez acolytes in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua while pursuing new arrangements with Argentina as an additional beachhead in Latin America,” he said, arguing that if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, “the Western Hemisphere would likely witness a significant jump in terrorist activity.”
But this “conspiracy theory” mentality is also dangerous in itself because it plays on voters’ fears, especially in an election year, Latin America expert Christopher Sabatini told The Diplomat.
“Some people are making a career of echoing Ahmadinejad’s own claims of collusion and cooperation,” said Sabatini, a senior policy director at the New York-based Council of the Americas. “That’s not to say we shouldn’t be careful and watch these things. Iran’s interests are truly opposed to ours, but demagogues make promises that are intended to inflame. You need to separate such claims from reality, and several Washington commentators have failed to do that.”
Sabatini suggested that conservative lawmakers such as Ros-Lehtinen and lobbyists like Roger Noriega — assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George W. Bush administration and now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute — are intentionally using Iran’s presence in Latin America to undermine the Obama administration.
“It’s a convenient campaign point,” he said. “Making Americans feel they’re at risk because the U.S. is asleep at the switch is a very troubling policy, and I don’t think it’s true.”
Indeed, most of the GOP presidential hopefuls have taken a nihilistic view of Tehran’s aims. “The greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran,” Mitt Romney recently declared. Newt Gingrich compared Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler and said he wouldn’t hesitate to overthrow the government by force. Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman also don’t rule out military intervention to stop Iran from getting the bomb.
Most political observers say these hawkish statements are typical campaign chest thumping. Likewise, Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says Ahmadinejad’s frequently forays to Latin America are mainly intended for domestic consumption — to show that Iran wields more influence than Saudi Arabia or Israel.
“Overstating the case for action could set back relations with friendly neighbors and make cooperation, when needed, less likely,” he said. “Instead, U.S. and friendly intelligence services should boost efforts to understand the degree to which Iran is circumventing sanctions, transferring technology and materials, establishing an Iranian Guard presence, and engaging terror groups for possible attacks.”
To be sure, speculation about Iran and Hezbollah’s Latin connections is grounded in legitimate fears. In December, U.S. authorities released details of a federal indictment against Lebanese citizen Ayman Joumaa, 47, who reportedly has ties to Hezbollah and was indicted by a Virginia grand jury on charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine.
The indictment accuses Joumaa of coordinating the smuggling of at least 85 tons of Colombian cocaine through Mexico in partnership with the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas between 1997 and 2010. It doesn’t specifically mention Hezbollah, but U.S. law enforcement officials said evidence points to an indirect connection between the terrorist group and Los Zetas.
In another development sure to further fan tensions between Chávez and the Obama administration, the State Department on Jan. 8 gave Venezuela’s consul-general in Miami, Livia Acosta Noguera, 72 hours to leave the country. The decision to expel her came a month after the Spanish-language TV network Univisión broadcast a documentary about Iran’s alleged terrorist activities in Latin America — in which Acosta, then cultural attaché at the Venezuelan Embassy in Mexico, reportedly discusses hacking into U.S. nuclear facilities.
Despite this latest diplomatic rupture, Johnson cautions that “a lot of what we think we know about Iran’s activities in the Americas is based on sketchy evidence,” such as recent newspaper reports of a jointly constructed missile base planned for Venezuela’s Paraguaná Peninsula.
The Inter-American Dialogue’s Shifter agrees, writing in a recent Foreign Policy op-ed that so far, “there has been no ‘smoking gun’ — Iranian support to prospect for uranium in Venezuela or Ecuador, for example — despite what are presumably serious efforts to gather intelligence by U.S. intelligence agencies.
“It is also worth asking whether supporting militant groups in Latin America would undermine Iran’s attempts to build friendships in the region,” he adds. “There is a contradiction between, on the one hand, courting allies in a context dominated by political moderation and pragmatism and, on the other, training terrorists. Most countries would resist the installation and spread of malevolent forces, which would put at risk their hard-earned economic progress and democratic stability.”
And on the economic front, Shifter argues that Iran’s promises of investment have largely fallen flat.
“There have been myriad bilateral deals between Iran and Venezuela, including joint ventures to produce cars, tractors, and bicycles, and some cooperation in mining exploration and housing construction,” he wrote in “Caracas or Bust,” but he added, “With Iran’s own economy in dire straits, it has limited capacity to do much on the other side of the globe.”
CSIS’s Johnson also says claims that Iranian trade with the Americas has skyrocketed are exaggerated. Not a single Latin country depends on Iran for more than 1 percent of its imports or exports, and Iran’s total trade with the region pales when compared to its business with Iran’s top five partners: the European Union, China, India, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
“Still another exaggeration is that Iran has obtained leverage through strategic investments,” Johnson said. “Though Iran has promised funding for hospitals, dams and water purification projects, not all of it has been supplied. Iran has spent billions on oil and gas exploration projects that have been questioned within Iran. Car and tractor factories in Venezuela are unprofitable and dropping off in production. A much-touted Tehran-Caracas airline route has been suspended. And when Ahmadinejad visits Managua again, will Daniel Ortega bring up debt forgiveness for past oil shipments? The last time he visited, Ahmadinejad said he would refer the matter to Iran’s parliament.”
Sabatini also noted that Ortega — for all his anti-American bluster — strongly supports Nicaragua’s free trade agreement with the United States and has pursued pro-business policies that have created thousands of factory jobs and contributed to his country’s prosperity. The fact that Iran never built a promised $350 million deep-water port on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast hasn’t helped Tehran’s reputation in Nicaragua, which despite recent gains still has the lowest per-capita income in Central America.
“The United States has correctly taken the view that Nicaragua is locked into an FTA with the U.S. as a bloc, and that the U.S. is seen as a stabilizing factor,” Sabatini said. “Nevertheless, Ortega also has his own domestic concerns. He needs Hugo Chávez for oil and patronage money, so by playing this card of sticking his finger in the eye of the United States, he continues to curry favor with Venezuela.”
Shifter said Ahmadinejad’s trip to Latin America was significant not so much for the countries he visited, but for one very large country he didn’t visit: Brazil.
“Brazil is conspicuously absent from this tour. [President] Dilma Rousseff has been very cautious and restrained in dealing with Iran,” he pointed out. “There’s not a lot of eagerness to embrace his government. Politically, there’s a lot of turmoil in Iran, and part of the motivation for this trip is to find opportunities for alliances with countries that are basically led by Chávez — who’s been the Latin American entry point for Iran since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. It’s useful to recall that Ahmadinejad also attended the inauguration of [Ecuadorean President Rafael] Correa in 2007 — exactly five years ago — and in five years, there are very few signs that Iran has any influence in Ecuador.”
Interestingly, another country the Iranian leader didn’t visit during his most recent Latin rendezvous was Bolivia — despite the warm ties he’s tried to cultivate with that country’s populist and unabashedly anti-American president, Evo Morales.
In late 2011, Washington and La Paz decided to restore full diplomatic relations, three years after Morales kicked out then-U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg following accusations that the Drug Enforcement Administration was meddling in internal Bolivian affairs and seeking to destabilize the Morales government (see “Bolivia, U.S. Restore Ties” in the news column of the December 2011 Diplomatic Pouch online).
Also last year, Bolivian authorities apologized to that country’s tiny Jewish community for having invited a top Iranian diplomat linked to the 1994 car-bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured nearly 300 others. Iranian-backed Hezbollah agents are also believed to have planned the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, an attack that left 29 people dead.
“Morales realizes that the benefits of cozying up to Ahmadinejad are less than the risks,” said Sabatini. “In fact, most people realize Ahmadinejad is visiting a rogue’s gallery of leaders. Correa, Chávez, Ortega and the Castro brothers are not the most respected leaders in the world today. But this is also domestic politics. Ahmadinejad is engaged in a battle with [Islamic] religious leaders who have tried to clip his wings. He wants to show them that he can still travel and be received. At least he’s not so isolated that he can’t leave his own country.”
Given the nature of the Iranian regime, according to Shifter, it’s not unreasonable to think the worst about Ahmadinejad. However, he added, things should be kept in perspective.
“It’s important to avoid alarmist conclusions without hard evidence. If Washington becomes obsessed with this, it’s not going to be helpful for improving relations with the major countries,” he told us. “A common complaint in Latin America is that the U.S. tends to take these issues out of proportion. At the same time, maybe some countries would back away from the Iranians, but they don’t want to be seen as being with the U.S. on this, so it becomes more polarized than it should be.”