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Caracas or Bust: Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's latest tour of Latin America a waste of time?

By Michael Shifter
Foreign Policy January 9, 2012

With his country in economic turmoil and facing unprecedented international pressure, the reasons for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's latest Caribbean excursion are hardly a mystery. As an international outcast under increasing pressure due to his nuclear program, Ahmadinejad is understandably anxious to reinforce ties with the few allies he has left. And at a moment of escalating tensions with Washington, amid Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, the temptation to push back against the United States by showing up in its so-called "backyard" is irresistible.

Ahmadinejad's sixth official trip to Latin America since coming to power in 2005 includes stops in Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua, and, of course, Venezuela. The Bolivarian Republic has been the Iranian president's window to the region -- the obligatory stop on all his trips to Latin America.

If Ahmadinejad's goal is to annoy Washington, he shouldn't have much trouble. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, dubbed Ahmadinejad's visit the "tour of tyrants." She charged it was aimed at "expanding the Iranian threat closer to our shores" and has promised closed briefings. His diplomatic excursion should also provide new campaign fodder for Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who have recently taken sharp aim at the administration's passivity in the face of what they claim is the growing activism of Iran and Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere.

But if Ahmadinejad's chief aim is to ratify and extend Iranian influence in Latin America, he might be setting himself up for disappointment. Overall, the region is living through a moment of enormous self-confidence. Most countries are today politically independent of the United States and relish the breathing space they didn't have in the era of greater U.S. tutelage. There is no sign that any of the major countries -- those outside the narrow, Venezuelan-led coalition -- have an interest in aligning themselves strategically with any other power, least of all Iran.

No one doubts that Ahmadinejad and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez, have forged a mutually convenient geopolitical alliance over the past seven years. Both are skilled provocateurs, fiercely intent on curtailing Washington's economic and political influence in the world. Since he came to power 13 years ago, Chávez has focused on building an anti-U.S. coalition in the Americas, reflected in Ahmadinejad's itinerary this week.

But Chávez, diagnosed with cancer last June (though he claims he is now cured) and gearing up for another campaign for reelection in October, is less and less relevant outside Venezuela. His grandiose ambitions have been stymied, largely due to mounting domestic problems such as growing shortages of food staples and sky-high murder rates (four times greater than Mexico's). Chávez simply isn't as useful an ally as he once was.

It is notable that Brazil -- the region's economic and political powerhouse, which was part of Ahmadinejad's itinerary in November 2009 -- will not be included on this visit. The change of government just over a year ago, from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to Dilma Rousseff, has resulted in a more moderate Brazilian foreign policy that is less leftist and openly defiant of Washington.

Under Lula, a 2010 Turkish-Brazilian proposal to deal with Iran's nuclear program deeply irritated U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and strained relations between Washington and Brasilia. For the pragmatic Rousseff, there is little appetite for a photo-op with Ahmadinejad, especially at a moment of growing international alarm about the Iranian nuclear program. For Iran, the tie with Brazil, which because of its economic weight and global influence is far more crucial than ties with other Latin America countries, appears to have weakened.

Still, while Brazil and other major Latin American countries are not extending Ahmadinejad much of a welcome, it is unlikely that they will vigorously enforce a tough sanctions regime led by Washington, which would divide the region between the few Chávez-led Iran allies and the majority of countries. Most countries do not want to jeopardize growing economic relationships with Iran (Brazil in particular has seen trade more than double since 2005).

That said, Iran's economic ties with the region have fallen far short of what Tehran had promised. There have been myriad bilateral deals between Iran and Venezuela, including joint ventures to produce cars, tractors, and bicycles, and some cooperation in mining exploration and housing construction. But in Nicaragua, for example, Iran pledged construction of a dam and a $350 million deep-water port, as well as auto and cement projects -- none have materialized. Economic cooperation between Ecuador and Iran remains modest. With Iran's own economy in dire straits, it has limited capacity to do much on the other side of the globe.

There is little question that the current Iranian regime would like to extend its presence and step up activities in the region, and in fact it has done so in the past few years. As the official IRIB news agency reported last month, "The promotion of all-out cooperation with Latin American countries is among the top priorities of the Islamic Republic's foreign policy." Since 2005, Iran has opened six embassies in Latin America and has expanded its diplomatic presence in a number of countries in the region.

One crucial question, however, is whether Iran's growing involvement in the region has been and will continue to be benign. On this score there are ample grounds for skepticism, given the regime's demonstrated support for terrorist activities and organizations such as Hezbollah. In Latin America, Iran has been accused of involvement in the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 that killed 85 people. (Argentina has warrants out for Iran's current defense minister and other officials.) In October, the United States accused Iranian authorities, working through Mexican drug cartels, of directing a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

But, it is not altogether clear what a more aggressive Iranian policy in Latin America would entail and what it could accomplish. There is a great deal of frustration and high levels of suspicion about Tehran's motives in the region, but no coherent alternative approach has been put forward. Partly in response to congressional pressure, and especially in the intense electoral climate, the Obama administration has taken a few modest, limited steps. Last May, it imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela's state-owned PDVSA oil company for violating U.S. law by doing business with Iran, and on Jan. 8 it expelled the Venezuelan consul in Miami based on reports of involvement in a possible cyberattack on the United States. Last month, Obama gave an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal that signaled his displeasure with Venezuela's ties with Iran.

However reasonable the speculation and conjecture about Iran's intentions in Latin America, it remains largely just that. Scant hard evidence has been adduced by credible sources. Some reports -- training camps for terrorists, for example -- are unsubstantiated and seem somewhat far-fetched. Others, such as money laundering through the region's banks, have a greater ring of plausibility (this is a big problem throughout the Americas). To date, however, there has been no "smoking gun" -- Iranian support to prospect for uranium in Venezuela or Ecuador, for example -- despite what are presumably serious efforts to gather intelligence by U.S. intelligence agencies.

It is also worth asking whether supporting militant groups in Latin America would undermine Iran's attempts to build friendships in the region. There is a contradiction between, on the one hand, courting allies in a context dominated by political moderation and pragmatism and, on the other, training terrorists. Most countries would resist the installation and spread of malevolent forces, which would put at risk their hard-earned economic progress and democratic stability.

If one judges from his itinerary, Ahmadinejad himself might not be expecting too much from this Latin American tour. His presence, symbolically and politically, appeals only to a few governments -- and might help shore up his fragile and shrinking support in Tehran. Brazil, a priority for Iran, seems to have notably turned a cold shoulder. There is little reason for the region to support the Iranian gambit, but it's still worth the United States keeping a close watch.