Foreign Policy / Iran / Latin America

Cristina, Hugo, Evo and The Art of Flirting With Iran.

All is fair in love, war and international politics. Today, some countries are flirting their way to the top of hemispheric dynamics and Iran is becoming extremely appealing for this purpose. This is the case for some of Latin America’s most polemic leaders. Cristina, Hugo, Evo and even Fidel have identified a strategic opportunity to pursue their very own national and regional ambitions…and Iran is part of their plan.

As a consequence of its misbehaviors and constant confrontations with the West, Iran has founds itself regionally isolated in recent years. Though distanced from the Persian nation by miles of ocean and land, some countries in Latin America have benefited from Iran’s willingness to buy some new friends.

At first sight it might appear as if Latin America does not have the qualities necessary to earn a special place in the Iran’s agenda. The territorial distance is the first issue that raises concern, not to mention the distinct languages, religions, cultural traits, histories, and pasts. It seems like every factor that could lead to a relation between two nations is missing in this case. However, (as the European Union demonstrated) there are two elements that have made “miracles” in the history of political integration and regional cooperation: Political willingness and common interests.

Latin America’s growing axis of the “left”, conformed by important political figures such as Cristina, Chavez, Evo, Fidel, and others, represents an important opportunity for Iran to create a new network of favors and interests in the distant region of Latin America. Furthermore, Iran sees in Latin America a growing political power and influence in the international system. The continent is part of and has various seats on today’s most important international organizations. This means votes that Iran could use to its favor today. Because all the nuclear weapons in the world cannot buy Iran seats in these organizations, it needs diplomacy and treaties. Furthermore, relations with Latin America are a tremendously defying act against the U.S. It is essentially “stealing” the United States’ own friends in its own hemisphere, and in its so-called “zone of influence”.

However, for Latin America, Iran represents more of a “sponsor” and a means to several ends rather than a comprehensive, long-term ally. It all comes down to a source of money and funds for various projects and an alliance with one of the world’s new powers that also happens to be enemies of the “Yankee imperialism”, as Chavez would say.  This fulfills the desire to execute a foreign policy as contrary and distant from the U.S as possible.

Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Evo Morales and now Cristina Fernandez have recently demonstrated willingness and interest to engage with Iran.  The relations that started with Khatami’s first visit to Latin America rapidly developed during Ahmadinejad’s first administration and Venezuela has operated as the link and door to the region since the beginning.

Bilateral agreements, corporate relations best exemplified by the Venezuela-Iran Oil & Gas Co., even a direct flight Caracas-Tehran, not to mention a long list of projects in terms of investment, loans, credits and political favors, demonstrate the commitment of Iran to the country.  But what Iran fails to see is that Caracas has its own regional project for oil and the Persian nation is not a priority in this matter. Furthermore, Venezuela is losing its influence in Latin America; Chavez’ proximate death will create turmoil in the midst of growing political, social and economic stability, which is not very promising for Iran in terms of future reliability. But despite the obvious, Venezuela has managed to keep Iran interested enough to finance political campaigns, industrial projects and establish a $200 million bi- national fund to promote investment.

In the case of Bolivia, relations with Iran were reestablished in 2007 with Ahmadinejad’s first visit to the country. Ever since, the two nations have made mutually supportive declarations, bilateral agreements in matters of mining, agriculture and energy, even signed an Industrial Cooperation Plan. Most importantly – and alarming for the U.S – is the fact that the regional defense school of the ALBA Group, located in Bolivia, is being sponsored economically by Iran, who is currently an observer of the regional organization founded by Chavez and Castro.  In 2010, La Paz and Tehran made several agreements to make the Persian nation partner in the mining and exploitation of lithium, a vital element in the nuclear weapons development.

And now Argentina is following its regional partners’ lead. Cristina Fernandez de Krichner has been facing strong criticism and rejection by the large and dominant Jewish lobby of the country and the international community in the last weeks. In a supposed attempt to bring to justice those responsible for the 1994 terrorist attacks on the AMIA installations in Buenos Aires, Cristina has been sustaining dialogue with Iran and pushing for an “understanding” memorandum.  But… Is this approach to Iran strictly related to the terrorist attacks?

Argentina’s recent behavior and its close relations with Venezuela suggest this event might be taken by Cristina as an opportunity to follow Chavez and Evo’s strategy of approaching Iran. After seeing the benefits of such relations, Argentina might be considering engaging as well, but at what expense? One thing is certain: Argentina’s conviction must be strong enough and the benefits substantially large for Krichner to decide to deal with the overwhelming opposition, criticism and rejection that come from flirting with Iran.

But Iran should not be fooled by the sacrifices made in the region on behalf of this relation. The friendship that Latin America has managed to portray as mutually beneficial, is – as almost everything policy wise in the region- pragmatic and shortsighted. The relative instability of the governments to which Iran relates- especially Venezuela- do not promise a long-term commitment. Iran should keep in mind that in Latin America, presidential terms come to an end and a different administration never guarantees continuity in any matter.

For now, flirting with Iran is very beneficial for the region, but… Will Iran ever get the Latin America to entirely commit to a long-term relation?