Iran’s Limitations in Latin America

Posted on Updated on

January 13, 2012 | 1215 GMT

Summary

ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) and Cuban President Gen. Raul Castro in Havana on Jan. 11

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ended a weeklong tour of Latin America on Jan. 12. Tensions between the United States and Iran in Latin America surrounded the visit. While Iran’s influence in the region poses some risks to the United States, those risks are limited by the lack of resources among Iran’s Latin American partners and the fear of U.S. retribution. The main contest between Washington and Tehran will remain in the Middle East.

Analysis

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left Ecuador on Jan. 12 after a weeklong tour of Latin America, during which he also visited Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. This was Ahmadinejad’s fifth visit to the region, and it came amid elevated tensions between the United States and Iran in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Although Ahmadinejad signed many cooperation agreements during his Latin American trip, the visits were largely geared toward garnering international attention.

The ongoing covert war between the United States and Iran generally plays out in the Middle East. However, much like Russia, Iran sees utility in cultivating close relationships in Latin America to maintain involvement in a traditional U.S. sphere of influence. Iran has close diplomatic ties with many of the countries on the left end of Latin America’s political spectrum, primarily because these countries’ relations with the United States are strained. Washington’s objections to Iran’s influence in Latin America have grown in recent years, peaking with the October 2011 allegations that an Iranian agent intended to solicit a Mexican cartel to help assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington and more recent allegations that led the United States to expel a Venezuelan consul general. Despite these incidents and heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, the United States has done little to keep Iran from cultivating relationships in the region. Though Iran’s involvement in the region poses some risks to the United States, those risks are limited.

Washington’s response to Ahmadinejad’s Latin America tour was muted, but the decision to expel Venezuelan Consul General in Miami Livia Acosta just days before the Iranian president arrived in Caracas highlighted the ongoing tensions between the United States and Iran and its Latin American partners. Acosta was declared persona non grata Jan. 9 based on accusations that she participated in a Cuban-Iranian plot that began in 2006 and was intended to conduct a cyberattack against key U.S. computer systems, including the White House, the National Security Administration, the CIA and nuclear power plants throughout the country.

These allegations surfaced in the documentary “The Iranian Threat, which aired in early December 2011 on Mexican TV network Univision. The documentary showed video from meetings between Iranian, Cuban and Venezuelan diplomats attempting to hire Mexican information technology professors to conduct the attack. In the documentary, Acosta is said to have passed information related to the conspiracy to individuals close to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The conspiracy was covertly recorded by a Mexican IT professor, who turned the evidence over to Mexican and U.S. authorities. Given the length of time the United States has known about Acosta’s alleged participation in the conspiracy, the publication of the documentary likely pushed U.S. authorities to take action against her (and Ahmadinejad’s visit provided a timely opportunity).

Reports from the U.S. and Latin American media have accused Iran of acquiring significant amounts of uranium from Venezuela and sending Hezbollah agents to Latin America for training. Iran does use its relationship with Venezuela and other Latin American partners to establish financial ties and set up shell companies designed to evade sanctions. It is less clear, however, whether there is any basis to the rumors about uranium supplies and Hezbollah training — and, if the rumors are true, how significant a threat they might pose to the United States. The rumors certainly contain elements of truth — Venezuela is thought to have uranium deposits, though whether they are being exploited is unclear. However, while Hezbollah has a presence in the region associated with its drug smuggling and financial activities, there is no indication that its activities pose a critical threat to the United States.

Whatever Iran’s intentions in Latin America might be, the role the region can play in supporting Tehran is inherently limited. It is difficult to estimate trade levels, as Iran frequently uses shell companies, but official trade between Latin America and Iran is negligible. More to the point, the Latin American countries with which Iran has relationships have limited resources to offer Iran. Even though Venezuela admitted to sending two separate shipments of gasoline to Iran in 2010, it costs a great deal to send refined products to Iran, and the dilapidated state of Venezuela’s refining sector has rendered the country barely able to keep up with its domestic gasoline demand. Neither Mexico nor Brazil — the region’s two countries with the largest industrial capacities — is interested in a particularly close relationship with Iran, in part because such ties would endanger critical relationships with the United States and Europe.

The threat of U.S. retaliation is the biggest constraint on Iran’s relationships with Latin America. The close relationships the Soviet Union had in Latin America during the Cold War — particularly with Cuba — were based on the credible promise of significant military and economic support from Moscow. Iran has no such assurances to offer any Latin American states, which means there is little incentive for countries in the region to risk seriously breaching relations with the United States. Even Venezuela, whose relations with the United States are heated, still depends on oil exports to the United States. Any serious deterioration of relations between Caracas and Washington could lead to oil sanctions that would affect the export revenues crucial to Venezuela.

While Iran’s involvement in the region poses some inherent risks to the United States, there are also significant limiting factors to those risks. The foundation of U.S. influence in Latin America rests solidly on the status of the United States as the primary trading partner for most Latin American countries and the largest military in the region. Without a significant outside guarantor of financial and military support, Latin American states will only go so far to facilitate anti-U.S. activities in the region. High-profile Iranian visits to Latin America remain a sideshow to the very real competition between Washington and Tehran in the Middle East.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ended a weeklong tour of Latin America on Jan. 12. Tensions between the United States and Iran in Latin America surrounded the visit. While Iran’s influence in the region poses some risks to the United States, those risks are limited by the lack of resources among Iran’s Latin American partners and the fear of U.S. retribution. The main contest between Washington and Tehran will remain in the Middle East.
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