During the 2000s and early 2010s, Iran made notable inroads throughout Latin America. Tehran capitalized on shifting power dynamics in an increasingly multipolar world and a tide of anti-US sentiments in Latin America in order to assert Iranian influence, most notably in countries where Left-leaning governments were in power.
Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials deepened Tehran’s relations with governments in Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Bonded mainly by a shared opposition to the US foreign policy agenda, Iran and these Central and South American states found much common cause. Given Iran’s own history under the control of foreign powers and the US’ Monroe Doctrine—a longstanding pillar of Washington’s Western Hemisphere foreign policy which opposes European colonization—anti-imperialist narratives within the framework of South-South solidarity gave rise to stronger relations between Tehran and a handful of Latin American governments.
From Washington’s perspective, Iran’s role in the Western Hemisphere represents a threat. Much like how the John F. Kennedy administration viewed the Soviet presence in Cuba as a menace to the United States, US officials and analysts have concluded that the George W. Bush administration saw a dangerous situation whereby Iran could use some Central and South American countries as a launchpad for operations against Washington and its interests in the region. As analysts have opined, Iran sees its Latin American networks’ supposed capabilities as a means to create blowback for Washington. According to certain sources—including the US and Argentine governments—the Argentina-Brazil-Paraguay tri-border area has been a base for Hezbollah operatives who represent an extension of Iranian influence into South America. Officials in Paraguay’s government claimed that after the September 11 terror attacks, the CIA and Israeli Mossad began operations in the tri-border area in order to neutralize alleged Hezbollah members and affiliates.
Today, with President Donald Trump in the White House and Mike Pompeo as his Secretary of State, the US is determined to eject Iranian influence from Latin America. Washington’s chief diplomat is working to pressure more Latin American countries into supporting Trump’s anti-Iranian campaign of “maximum pressure.” It appears that such pressure is achieving at least some of the administration’s objectives.
Since mid-2019, four Latin American countries have taken steps to support Trump’s maximum pressure agenda by branding Hezbollah a terrorist organization. In July 2019, Argentina was the first to do so, followed by Paraguay the following month. The government in Buenos Aires, which blames Iran and Hezbollah for two terrorist attacks in the Argentine capital in the 1990s, stated: “At present, Hezbollah continues to represent a current threat to security and the integrity of the economic and financial order of the Argentine Republic.”
The Paraguayan government, which also branded Palestinian militant group Hamas a terror organization, said the designations highlighted their commitment to “preventing and combating violent extremism.” In early 2020, Honduras and Colombia also made this designation. Some experts believe that Bolivia, Brazil, and Guatemala will classify Hezbollah a terrorist entity before long. In fact, some of President Jair Bolsonaro’s allies in Brazil allege that Hezbollah played a role in the stabbing attack against him during 2018.
Ultimately, there is much debate about the extent to which Iran and Hezbollah actually possess influence in Latin America. Many Iran hawks argue that Tehran and its Lebanese surrogate pose a grave threat to regional security in the Western Hemisphere. Yet others maintain these claims are based on gross exaggerations and that Hezbollah has no structured presence in Central and South America—meaning that it is highly unlikely that the Lebanese Shia group would have the means to wage any attacks in the Western Hemisphere. This latter group believes that these alleged Hezbollah members in the tri-border area are mainly drug smugglers from the Lebanese Shia diaspora with no concrete ties to the group. These smugglers operate cross-borders where movement is largely unregulated.
Regardless, the Trump administration pushes the narrative that Iran and Hezbollah pose a major threat to the US and its allies from Latin America’s lawless areas and from countries with anti-American governments, most notably Venezuela. “The roots of these terror groups may be many miles away, but their branches twist around the globe, raising funds, seeking recruits, probing for our weaknesses and challenging our defenses” was how Pompeo put it while speaking in Argentina in 2019.
Indeed, the Trump administration has been taking on an increased interest in the region despite paying little attention to Latin America in 2017. This fact is highlighted by the Trump administration’s strong positions against Venezuela’s UN-recognized government and its outreach to more conservative governments taking power throughout the region. Within this context, Trump and those around him are using their leverage vis-à-vis US allies in Central and South America to take actions against this alleged Iranian threat to security in the Western Hemisphere.
A key question is, what risks do these Latin American governments have to consider when mulling actions against Tehran and Hezbollah? The possibilities of creating new domestic problems—especially concerning citizens of Latin American countries who either immigrated from the Middle East or have roots in the region—by siding with Trump against Tehran and Hezbollah, must be considered. One example worth noting is that the Argentine government reportedly began softening its anti-Hezbollah position only months after announcing the classification of the group as a terrorist entity on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center on July 18, 1994, which the group is said to be responsible for.
Yet despite the risks that Latin American governments may need to accept if/when they choose to align with the “maximum pressure” campaign, more states in the region may embrace it as a means of securing a stronger relationship with Trump. As his administration grows increasingly focused on Latin America and the region’s alleged connections to Iran-backed groups while Washington and Tehran’s brinkmanship continues, the odds are good that more countries in the Western Hemisphere will remain under significant pressure from the US government to take actions against Iran and its main Lebanese ally.
In the process, the Trump administration is pursuing its own version of the Monroe Doctrine to ensure that Latin American countries do not exercise their right to establish independent foreign policies that may entail constructive ties with Iran. As the White House sees it, there is no constructive role for Tehran to play anywhere south of the US-Mexico border.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero.
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