by Ilan Berman
Middle East Quarterly
Summer 2012, pp. 63-69 (view PDF)
In October 2011, U.S. attorney general Eric Holder and FBI director Robert Mueller revealed the thwarting of an elaborate plot by elements in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington at a posh D.C. eatery, utilizing members of the Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel.
The foiled terrorist plot, with its Latin American connections, focused new attention on what had until then been a largely overlooked political phenomenon: the intrusion of the Islamic Republic of Iran into the Western Hemisphere. An examination of Tehran’s behavioral pattern in the region over the past several years reveals four distinct strategic objectives: loosening the U.S.-led international noose to prevent it from building nuclear weapons; obtaining vital resources for its nuclear project; creating informal networks for influence projection and sanctions evasion; and establishing a terror infrastructure that could target the U.S. homeland.
Building Western Hemisphere Alliances
Outreach to Latin America is seen by the Iranian regime first and foremost as a means to lessen its deepening international isolation. Since 2003, when its previously clandestine nuclear program became a pressing international issue, Tehran has sought to mitigate the mounting political and economic restrictions levied against it by the United States and its allies through intensified diplomatic outreach abroad.
Due to its favorable geopolitical climate—typified by vast ungoverned areas and widespread anti-Americanism—Latin America has become an important focus of this effort. Over the past decade, the regime has nearly doubled the number of embassies in the region (from six in 2005 to ten in 2010) and has devoted considerable energy to forging economic bonds with sympathetic regional governments.
Far and away the most prominent such partnership has been with Venezuela. Since Hugo Chavez became president in 1999, alignment with Tehran has emerged as a cardinal tenet of Caracas’s foreign policy. The subsequent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency in 2005 kicked cooperation into high gear with dramatic results. Today, the two countries enjoy an extensive and vibrant strategic partnership. Venezuela has emerged as an important source of material assistance for Tehran’s sprawling nuclear program as well as a vocal diplomatic backer of its right to atomic power. The Chavez regime also has become a safe haven and source of financial support for Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful terrorist proxy. In turn, Tehran’s feared Revolutionary Guard has become involved in training Venezuela’s secret services and police. Economic contacts between Caracas and Tehran likewise have exploded—expanding from virtually nil in the early 2000s to more than $20 billion in total trade and cooperation agreements today.
Just as significantly, Venezuela has served as Iran’s gateway for further economic and diplomatic expansion into the region. Aided by its partnership with Caracas and bolstered by a shared anti-American outlook, Tehran has succeeded in forging significant strategic, economic, and political links with the regime of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Even Iran’s relations with Argentina, where Iranian-supported terrorists carried out major bombings in 1992 and 1994, have improved in recent times, as the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has hewed a more conciliatory line toward Tehran.
It would be a mistake, however, to view these contacts as simply pragmatic—or strictly defensive. The Iranian regime’s sustained systematic outreach to regional states suggests that it sees the Western Hemisphere as a crucial strategic theater for expanding its own influence and reducing that of the United States. Indeed, a 2009 dossier prepared by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that “since Ahmadinejad’s rise to power, Tehran has been promoting an aggressive policy aimed at bolstering its ties with Latin American countries with the declared goal of ‘bringing America to its knees.’” This view is increasingly shared by the U.S. military: In its 2010 report on Iranian military power, the Office of the Secretary of Defense noted that “Iran seeks to increase its stature by countering U.S. influence and expanding ties with regional actors” in Latin America.
To this end, Tehran is ramping up its strategic messaging to the region. In late January, on the heels of Ahmadinejad’s very public four-country tour of Latin America, the Iranian regime formally launched HispanTV, a Spanish-language analogue to its English-language Press TV channel. The television outlet has been depicted by Ahmadinejad as part of his government’s efforts to “limit the ground for supremacy of dominance seekers”—a thinly-veiled reference to U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere.
As Ahmadinejad’s statement indicates, Tehran is pursuing a strategy that promotes its own ideology and influence in Latin America at Washington’s expense. In this endeavor, it has been greatly aided by Chavez, who himself has worked diligently to diminish U.S. political and economic presence in the region under the banner of a new “Bolivarian” revolution.