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Iran’s Relations with Latin America Less Than Meets the Eye

Inter Press Service

Its economy hurting from sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been making a show of bolstering its ties to Latin America, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in January making his sixth official visit to the region since taking office in 2005.

Contrary to assertions made by the regime and many U.S. policymakers, however, analysts say the trip is more about Iran seeking to maintain an appearance of diplomatic strength than meaningfully strengthening economic – much less military – relations.

According to Iranian state news, the "promotion of all-out cooperation with Latin American countries" is one of the Islamic Republic's "top priorities". As part of his five-day tour of the region that began Jan. 7, Ahmadinejad made stops in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador, all countries ruled by governments that have rocky relations with the United States.

But while big on anti-imperialist rhetoric, Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said the trip was short on substance.

"A lot of it was photo-ops and trying to show to the Iranian public, but also to the world, that Iran is not an isolated regime," Isacson told IPS.

And he pointed out that while Iran's economic ties with Venezuela's are indeed substantial, with trade between the two nations topping three billion dollars annually, there is no evidence of any sort of joint military operations that might threaten the United States. And whereas the Iranian president visited Brazil two years ago, this time around he did not stop over at any of the economic powerhouses in South America, which points to waning diplomatic relations, not strengthening ones.

Yet right-wing and liberal hawks in Washington have spoken of the trip and Iran's relations with Latin America in terms often reminiscent of the Cold War and its with-us-or-against-us mentality.

Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who chairs the Senate subcommittee on the Western hemisphere, called it "alarming" that any country would host Ahmadinejad. In a statement, he said it showed "these nations place a higher value on colluding with an international pariah than in working with the world to address Iran's support for terrorism, including acts of terror perpetrated in Latin America, as well as its nuclear weapons ambitions."

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee, has been even more alarmist, describing Ahmadinejad's trip to Cuba – where he received an honourary degree in political science and met with former President Fidel Castro – as indicative of an emerging threat against the United States.

"Both Iran and Cuba have clear intentions of harming the U.S.," said Ros-Lehtinen in a press release. "(B)oth support extremist groups dedicated to bringing destruction to our nation or destabilizing our allies," and they "work together on biotechnology research that could have weapons applications."

Connie Mack, another Florida Republican who chairs the House subcommittee, for his part took aim at Venezuela, saying its president Hugo Chávez was helping Iran flout international sanctions "while welcoming the building of Iranian missiles sites in Venezuela".

"A visit from Ahmadinejad is just the beginning of what could be a nightmare for the U.S.," said Mack, noting a recent report that Iranian and Venezuelan diplomats stationed in Mexico had discussed the possibility of launching cyber-attacks against the U.S. government.

But while big on bluster, statements on Iran and its ties to Latin America from hawks in Washington have long been short on fact. In 2010, for instance, Roger Noriega, a former State Department official under the George W. Bush administration and now with the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, alleged that Venezuela was not just aiding Iran's nuclear programme, but receiving help from the Islamic Republic to build an atomic weapon of its own – a claim mocked by U.S. diplomats.

Sometimes the claims are contradictory. Testifying before Congress last year, Noriega claimed Iran had "at least two parallel terrorist networks" operating in Latin America engaged in everything from "narcotics smuggling" to providing "weapons and explosives training to drug trafficking organisations that operate along the U.S. border with Mexico".

Months later, Noriega cited alleged Iranian involvement in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. as bolstering those claims – despite the fact that, if true, the plot would undermine those claims, showing that Iran's ties to Latin America are so weak that it would have to reach out to a failed used car salesman in order to contact the very drug trafficking organisations to which it was purportedly already providing training in terrorist tactics.

Likewise, despite allegations from Ros-Lehtinen and others that countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador are colluding with Iran and helping supply it with uranium for its nuclear programme, Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue noted in a recent piece that the U.S. government has no evidence to support that, "despite what are presumably serious efforts to gather intelligence by U.S. intelligence agencies."

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also continues to verify the non-diversion of radioactive material from Iran's nuclear energy programme.

The U.S. government has also dismissed allegations Iran has stationed missiles in Venezuela as being without foundation.

"They're just way out ahead of what the intelligence community and even U.S. Southern Command are saying," WOLA's Isacson told IPS about the claims about Iran's allegedly nefarious doings in Latin America. "We're not seeing significant military cooperation with Iran."

Rather, the U.S. is "seeing investment projects, they're seeing obviously these shows of political support – they don't like those – but if they actually were seeing the things (lawmakers) are alleging… I think you'd be seeing far more than just Ileana Ros-Lehtinen or Connie Mack saying aggressive words."

In reality, Iran's relations with Latin America, not unlike U.S. politicians' rhetoric, is about little more than aggressive words – not that there have not been plenty of them uttered by Ahmadinejad and his counterparts.

Venezuela's Chávez was characteristically boisterous, calling Ahmadinejad his "real brother" and calling it "a danger to the world – these pretensions of the Yankee Empire to control the globe."

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, elected last fall to a legally controversial third term, similarly defended Iran during Ahmadinejad's visit, echoing the Iranian state's contention that it is Israel – not the Islamic Republic – that needs to dismantle its nuclear programme.

But beyond a shared dislike for the U.S. and Israel – and a shared anti-U.S. revolutionary history – there is not much more to the Iranian-Nicaraguan relationship, not unlike the Iranian relationship to the region as a whole. As the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, however, Nicaragua is not in a position to turn down many offers of aid, no matter how long it may take them to materialise.

At the same time, with the U.S. and Europe increasingly trying to isolate it, the Islamic Republic is in no position to display its diplomatic strength, insofar as it has it, no matter how small or poor the host nation.

But in contrast to assertions from U.S. policymakers about a Persian menace in their backyard, Iran's close relations with almost exclusively small, poor nations are more indicative of weak and superficial ties to Latin America than a strong – much less threatening – relationship.

Charles Davis is a contributor to Inter Press Service.

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