Hot on the heels of state visits last November between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Latin American counterparts Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Evo Morales of Bolivia, Iran's tentacles continue to enmesh Latin American nations. Make no mistake: the target is the United States.
Venezuela's nascent nuclear program seems primed to draw upon technical assistance via both legal and illegal proliferation by Iran's civilian and military programs. Venezuelan Mining Minister Rodolfo Sanz told reporters in September that "Iranian and Venezuelan experts are jointly conducting surveys to find uranium deposits." Chavez himself declared: "Preliminary steps have been taken to establish a ‘nuclear village' with the help of the Iranians."
Ahmadinejad and Chavez signed a memorandum of understanding in Caracas last November covering "270 agreements on cooperation in agriculture, industry, technology, energy, fishery and housing." An Iranian Ministry of Industries and Mines spokesman announced this month that "70 projects, mostly run by private sector companies, now are operating in Venezuela." The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Corporation reported Iranian corporations are tunneling and excavating in Venezuela - perhaps like their activities around nuclear sites in Iran. Venezuela could end up providing Iran with a steady supply of uranium. Indeed, Chavez taunted the U.S. during a televised Venezuelan cabinet meeting last October: "How's [our] progress on uranium for Iran, for its atom bomb?"
Recently, Tehran and Caracas have reached agreement to supply Iran with 20,000 barrels of gasoline per day - a move that could render ineffective U.S. attempts to embargo refined fuel imports by Iran. Joint efforts by both nations in banking and investment funds increasingly facilitate the Iranian government's efforts to run rings around the U.S. Treasury department's sanctions. Flight manifests between Tehran, Damascus and Caracas remain undisclosed as well, with reports that illicit materials, destructive equipment, and dangerous individuals are moving between those destinations. It is worthwhile to remember that an Iranian and Syrian militant client - Hezbollah - is believed by U.S. intelligence to have spread into Latin America.
Iran began establishing military ties to Morales' Bolivian government in 2007. Economic aid estimated at $1 billion has been pledged by Ahmadinejad's cash-strapped regime to Bolivia. The National Iranian Oil Company opened an office in Santa Cruz for "joint projects in oil, gas, petrochemicals, and minerals" according to a press release last November. In return, Bolivia has publically supported Iran's nuclear program and may have provided some uranium as well. Morales characterizes his relationship with Ahmadinejad as one of "leaders who love justice." Iran hopes Cuba will join Bolivia in tripartite cooperation with the Islamic Republic - and so sent a delegation to Havana in June 2009.
Like Venezuela and Bolivia, Brazil has rapidly expanded economic, technological and financial cooperation with Ahmadinejad's administration. Such cooperation gives the regime in Tehran much needed international validity even as its legitimacy at home slips away. It also further facilitates Iran's attempts to circumvent UN and U.S. economic sanctions. Moreover, like Bolivia and Venezuela, Brazil is a potential source of uranium for Iran and a possible future recipient of Iranian assistance in nuclear technology. Tehran even suggested Brazil as a site where it would swap nuclear fuel with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Under ordinary circumstances, cooperation and assistance between Third World countries would and should be welcomed. Those nations need to solve their socioeconomic problems without constant handouts from developed nations. Yet these are far from normal times.
Iran sees Latin American nations as partners in creating a new world order. Ahmadinejad recently told the visiting Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro: "We need to establish a new system and take measures based on that system.... Many countries will join the new system." That Iran and Venezuela view nuclear power as part of an attempt at global hegemony was reinforced in a joint press conference this month between Maduor and his Iranian counterpart Manuchehr Mottaki: "Our experiences prompt us to generate nuclear fuel independently and even broaden the scope of our activities to meet the demands of other countries."
Many of the allegedly private Iranian companies doing business in Latin America are controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) through investments in corporate stocks. The IRGC operates in mining, construction, oil, gas, communications, mass media and arms industries within Iran and in Iranian commercial and aid ventures abroad. Not surprisingly, an IRGC commander named Mohammad Ali Jafari vowed during the recent protests against the incumbent regime that "preserving the Islamic Republic is even more vital than performing daily prayers." Venezuela and Bolivia too share this situation in which militarization of the state is occurring through the armed forces taking major stakes in industry.
The 2009 Annual Threat Assessment presented by U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair may have been too modest in stating "Tehran has made some progress over the last few years in improving commercial ties and establishing embassies and cultural centers in Latin America, with an aim to reducing Iran's international isolation." Rather, the Iranian government is expanding the lines of conflict with the European Union, United Nations and especially the U.S. through a rearguard action in Latin America. Based on these developments, the administration in Washington needs to take far more seriously the distinct possibility that a regime that is brutally repressive to its own citizens is unlikely to sow anything other than turmoil in the Western Hemisphere.