Ahmadinejad Goes on Tour: What’s Iran’s Agenda in Latin America?

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Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) is welcomed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (R) at Miraflores Palace in Caracas January 9, 2012.

In 2006, the same year Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called then U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” at the U.N., Chávez and his oil-rich, anti-U.S. revolution were looking for new ways to kick Washington in the shins. But there was one move that year that made even some diehard Chavistas uncomfortable: strengthening Venezuela’s alliance with oil-rich, anti-U.S. Iran and its erratic new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran wasn’t just another strident U.S. foe; in the eyes of much of the world it was a tyrannical, terrorist-friendly pariah. Hardline leftists like his then chief of staff, Delsy Rodríguez, egged Chávez on, but others in his government saw more drawbacks than benefits to the Caracas-Tehran abrazo.

Their concerns of course were dismissed. And they have been ever since, especially when Washington and its allies tighten sanctions against Iran, as they’ve done again recently, to get it to ditch a nuclear energy program that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) fears is an effort by the Islamic republic to develop nuclear weapons (which Tehran and allies like Venezuela deny). Venezuela’s left-wing partners in Latin America, including Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador, also back Iran against what they call U.S. imperialismo. That’s why Ahmadinejad is on a visit to all four countries this week – re-elected Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inauguration is on his itinerary today, Jan. 10 – a tour designed to show the world that Iran isn’t as isolated as Washington claims, and that it even has amigos in America’s own backyard.

Washington expelled Venezuela’s controversial consul in Miami over the weekend, partly as a show of displeasure over Chávez’s support for Ahmadinejad. Chávez, meanwhile, defiantly made an army general accused by the U.S. of involvement in drug trafficking his new Defense Minister. Both sides believe they have the upper hand this week. But the truth is that Ahmadinejad may be playing both instead. Blinded by the thrill of standing up to the U.S. for a few days, which admittedly galvanizes their domestic political bases, the Latin leftists seem blissfully unaware that the Iranian leader is using them to burnish his image – while they cultivate the image of wannabes walking to the altar with one of the world’s most distrusted governments. Chávez – who even suggested this month that the U.S. could be responsible for the cancers that he and other Latin American leaders have recently battled – called Ahmadinejad “a true brother” upon receiving him in Caracas on Monday, the same praise he’s used for the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan consul’s expulsion is a reminder that the Obama Administration risks letting Ahmadinejad’s visit, his sixth to Latin America as Iran’s President, goad it into the kind of heavy-handed response toward the Chávez bloc that could alienate Washington’s more moderate allies in the region if not elsewhere in the world. That includes Brazil, which sees itself as a mediator between Washington and U.S. foes like Iran and Venezuela (although, after its sour experience two years ago brokering an Iranian nuclear energy deal, Brasília seems to be keeping its own distance from Tehran these days). Iran knows that even if the international community may agree with Washington’s efforts to keep Tehran from having the bomb, bullying other countries in the process usually backfires on the U.S.

Analysts like Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., point to exaggerations as well as legitimate concerns about Iran’s presence in the western hemisphere. One big hyperbole: that Iran is somehow an influential trade and investment player in Latin America like China. “Iran’s commerce with any single Latin American country is still only a sliver,” Johnson writes in a report this month, “amounting to less than 1% in all cases.” Even Venezuela, Johnson reminds me this week, barely ranks among Iran’s top 50 trade partners.

Another stretch may be the notion that Iran is exporting terrorism to the Americas through the Chávez bloc. Some Chávez critics in the U.S. insist, for example, that the militant Lebanese Islamic party Hizballah has been allowed to set up shop in Venezuelan pockets like Margarita Island. But little hard evidence has surfaced, and Hizballah’s “control over cells in Latin America is but an educated guess,” according to Johnson’s report. Johnson does note, and rightly so, that Venezuela’s law enforcement vacuum – it has one of the world’s highest murder rates today and has only just begun to address it – remains a vulnerability that international crime can exploit.

A more valid issue is whether Latin American countries like Venezuela are letting Tehran, willingly or not, exploit their financial systems to essentially launder money for Iran’s Defense Ministry via organizations like the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI). “That would have serious repercussions if Iran really is developing nuclear weapons,” says Johnson. Ecuador has come under particular scrutiny because of the EDBI’s extensive operations there. Another worry, says Johnson’s report, is “evidence that joint ventures have helped introduce” operatives from elite Iranian military groups like the Iranian Guard and Quds Force into countries like Venezuela.

And Venezuela, which already helps Iran circumvent international economic sanctions by selling it some 20,000 barrels of gasoline each day (for which the U.S. has sanctioned Venezuela’s state-run oil monopoly, PDVSA), has made no secret of its desire to supply Iran with uranium for nuclear energy. But experts say it’s uncertain if Venezuela is sitting on as much of the high-grade radioactive ore as it claims, or if it could even extract it in appreciable quantities if it is.

The bottom line is that both Washington and Latin America’s Chávez bloc need to be more circumspect about Iran’s influence in the western hemisphere. But the reality is that cooler geopolitical heads usually don’t prevail when Washington, the Chávez bloc and Iran are involved. So the sooner this week ends, the better off the western hemisphere will be.