FPI Bulletin: Iran Renews Ties with Latin America

September 7, 2016

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s recent six-nation tour of Latin America aims to send Washington a message that Iran will continue to challenge U.S. interests in the region despite the nuclear agreement. In particular, Tehran will sponsor terrorism, promote its radical Islamist ideology, pursue illicit money-laundering schemes, strengthen alliances with anti-American regimes, and ultimately threaten the U.S. homeland. In response, the Obama administration should devise a comprehensive strategy commensurate to the threat, and make clear that it will not accept any form of Iranian aggression in its hemisphere.

Iran’s Goals in Latin America

For more than three decades, Iran and its chief proxy, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, have maintained extensive logistical support networks in Latin America aimed at financing the Islamist regime’s global terrorist operations and expanding its ideological influence. Iranian-sponsored schools, mosques and cultural centers dot the region’s landscape. A Spanish-language television network, HispanTV, broadcasts Tehran’s Islamist message to millions of viewers. A thriving black market rooted in drugs and other illicit goods supplies the Iranian regime with a modest but reliable source of funding, and enables the regime to acquire dual-use technology for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

In this context, Iran has used its embassies and other sites under its control to collect intelligence and manage its Hezbollah proxies. A 2013 report by the late Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused Tehran of “infiltrating several South American countries by building local clandestine intelligence stations designed to sponsor, foster and execute terrorist attacks.” In his 2016 Posture Statement, Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, noted that Hezbollah “maintains an infrastructure with the capability to conduct or support terrorist attacks.”

Iran’s most infamous assaults in Latin America occurred in the early 1990s, when suicide bombers attacked the Israeli embassy and the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society  building in Argentina (AMIA), killing 29 and 85 people respectively. But the regime’s terrorist activities in the region have hardly receded since then. In 2007, the United States foiled a plot to attack the John F. Kennedy International Airport by four men of Latin American descent with ties to Iran. In October 2011, the United States thwarted an Iranian scheme to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington in a D.C. restaurant.

In congressional testimony last year, Joseph M. Humire of the Center for a Secure Free Society noted that Iran’s presence in Latin America developed over the course of four sequential stages: cultural, diplomatic, economic, and military. First, the regime established mosques, schools, and other cultural centers within indigenous populations. From these locations, it cultivated diplomatic ties with regional governments, thereby enabling Iran to establish embassies that would solidify its presence. Then, using the diplomatic posts as a cover, Tehran pursued illicit trade opportunities and money laundering to circumvent international sanctions and fund its global terror operations. Finally, it leveraged its now-robust connections in the region to obtain dual-use material for its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

At first glance, Latin America, with its many secular, Marxist regimes, seems an unlikely partner for Tehran’s religious Shiite revolutionaries, but opposition to the United States, particularly its sanctions campaigns against Iran and countries such as Cuba and Venezuela, has united Iran with several of its governments. In 1982, Iranian cleric Mohsen Rabbani, who would later play a key role in planning the 1994 AMIA bombing, called Latin America “a virgin area” that shares Tehran’s “solid support against the imperialism and Zionism intrigues.” In 2012, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, Iran’s foremost Latin American ally until his death in 2013, noted, “One of the targets that Yankee imperialism has in its sights is Iran, which is why we are showing our solidarity.”

The Significance of Zarif’s Visit

In the context of these developments, Foreign Minister Zarif, with a 120-member delegation of political and economic officials, began a week-long visit to Latin America on August 21 that included stops in Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela. On Twitter, Zarif described the trip, which marked the first visit of a senior Iranian official to the region since President Hassan Rouhani assumed office in 2013, as an effort “to strengthen political & economic ties.” In a separate statement, he noted that the nuclear deal had “removed obstacles” to a closer relationship, an apparent reference to the lifting of sanctions. Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht-Ravanchi said Zarif's visit marked “the beginning of a new chapter in relations between Iran and Latin America.”

On the surface, both Iran and Latin America seemed to benefit considerably from the trip. Over the course of the week, Zarif and his foreign counterparts signed a series of political and economic agreements that purported to revitalize both Iran and Zarif’s host countries. In reality, most of the regimes Zarif visited preside over ailing economies, and Latin America accounts for less than 6 percent of Iran’s total imports. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran has reached some 500 cooperative agreements with Latin American countries — most of which have failed to result in significant economic gains for any of their signatories.

In fact, Iran always viewed its presence in Latin America not as an economic opportunity, but as a military and ideological imperative. The region, with its many anti-American regimes, offers Tehran a safe haven that enables it to export its radical vision of the Islamic Revolution to America’s doorstep and simultaneously fund its global military adventurism. In this sense, the particulars of Zarif’s itinerary matter less than the overarching reality of Iran’s pervasive regional influence that his visit symbolizes and reflects.

As if to emphasize this point, Zarif issued statements throughout his trip highlighting the shared opposition of his hosts to U.S. policy. In Cuba, he condemned the United States for “atrocities and unjust sanctions.” In Nicaragua, he praised the citizens of both countries “for their revolutions and resistance against the pressures from outside.” In Venezuela, he noted that both nations “have resisted against foreign pressure and arrogant powers.”

Even as he denigrated America, however, Zarif also expressed confidence that the Obama administration would go out of its way to encourage business with Iran, a step that the nuclear agreement in no way requires. “If the banks eager to work with Iran are worried about negative behavior of the U.S., we are ready to get them letters from the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, to feel comfortable and communicate with Iran,” he said while in Chile. Apparently alluding to Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Europe to urge banks and companies to resume business with Iran, Zarif’s statement suggests that Tehran believes it can easily manipulate Washington to achieve its desired economic ends and to stymie any consequences for its misbehavior.

Needed: A New U.S. Strategy

Unfortunately, the White House has failed to recognize this dynamic. In December 2012, Congress responded to the Iranian threat in Latin America by passing the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act (P.L. 112-220), which required the administration to develop a strategy to combat Iran’s influence in the region. The unclassified version of the administration’s ensuing report, issued in June 2013, declared that Iranian influence in the hemisphere was “waning,” and offered no new plan of action beyond America's existing sanctions, diplomacy, intelligence sharing, and border security measures.

The administration must adopt a new strategy that addresses the totality of Iran’s threat in the region. Such an approach, at a minimum, should entail robust sanctions on sectors of Iran’s economy that supports its regional aggression and ballistic missile program, and on any other country that enables Tehran’s misbehavior. If the White House continues its passivity, it should not be surprised if Iran’s presence in Latin America continues to metastasize, ultimately posing a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More