Last weekend, amid deepening tensions between his regime and the international community, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad commenced a high-profile diplomatic tour of Latin America. The foreign visit, which will take the Iranian president to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador, is the latest sign of Iran’s growing interest in, and intrusion into, the Western Hemisphere - a phenomenon with grave implications for U.S. security.
Iran’s contemporary presence in the region centers on its strategic partnership with Venezuela. Since Hugo Chavez became Venezuela’s president in 1999, alignment with Iran’s radical regime has emerged as a cardinal tenet of his government’s foreign policy. The subsequent election of Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005 kicked cooperation into high gear, with dramatic results. Today, Venezuela serves as a key source of uranium for Iran’s sprawling nuclear program and an important diplomatic supporter of Iran’s will to atomic power. The Chavez regime also has emerged as a safe haven and source of financial support for Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful terrorist proxy. In turn, Iran’s feared Revolutionary Guards have become involved in training Venezuela’s secret services and police. Economic ties between Caracas and Tehran likewise have exploded - expanding from virtually nil in 2007 to an estimated $40 billion today.
But while Iran’s interest in the region starts with Venezuela, it certainly doesn’t end there. Tehran also has made serious inroads elsewhere in the region in recent years, animated by four concrete objectives.
First and foremost, Iran’s outreach is intended to lessen its own international isolation. Over the past several years, as its persistent nuclear effort has drawn growing criticism from the global community, Tehran has redoubled its efforts to forge new bonds with sympathetic foreign regimes, including in the Western Hemisphere. These include not only the Chavez regime in Venezuela, but also Evo Morales’ Bolivia and the government of Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Even Iran’s relations with Argentina, where Iranian-supported terrorists carried out major bombings in 1992 and 1994, have witnessed a marked uptick of late, as the government of President Cristina Fernandez has hewed a more conciliatory line toward Tehran. Through them, Iran’s embattled regime gains a crucial diplomatic lifeline and willing partners in its efforts to resist the economic pressure being levied by the United States and its allies.
Second, Iran has homed in on Latin America as an important source of strategic resources. In recent years, as its own supplies of uranium have begun to run out, Tehran has embarked upon a widening global quest for the critical raw material necessary to keep its nuclear effort up and running. Thus, with the blessing of the Chavez regime, it has begun exploring and extracting uranium from key deposits near Venezuela’s border with Guyana. Bolivia, too, is believed to be providing Iran with uranium - and allowing Iran to mine lithium, a key strategic mineral with applications for nuclear-weapons development. Iran even appears to be eyeing Ecuador’s uranium deposits; a $30 million joint mining deal concluded between Tehran and Quito in 2009 has positioned the Correa regime to eventually become a supplier for the Islamic republic.
Third, Tehran has sought to leverage widespread anti-American and anti-colonial sentiment in Central and South America to dilute U.S. power and influence there. As a 2009 report on Iran’s regional activities by Israel’s Foreign Ministry succinctly put it, “Since Mr. 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.’ ” In this endeavor, Iran has been greatly aided by Mr. Chavez, who himself has worked diligently to diminish America’s political and economic presence in his region under the banner of a new “Bolivarian” revolution.
Finally and most ominously, the Iranian regime sees Latin America as an advantageous base of operations close to the U.S. homeland - one that provides Iran the ability to strike at America should it make the strategic choice to do so. The potentially catastrophic consequences were hammered home in October, when U.S. law enforcement agencies narrowly foiled a plot orchestrated by Iran’s most notorious paramilitary unit, the Qods Force, to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s U.S. envoy in Washington.
These motivations historically have been poorly understood and even more inadequately addressed. More often than not, when confronted with signs of Iranian activity in the Americas, U.S. officials have tended to treat them reactively or dismiss them altogether as little more than an “axis of annoyance.” That represents a serious error, for Iran’s outreach to Latin America isn’t simply tactical. As its sustained systematic outreach to regional states amply demonstrates, Tehran sees the Western Hemisphere as a crucial strategic theater wherein to expand its strategic influence - and dilute America’s.
Policymakers in Washington would do well to wake up to this reality. They would do even better to formulate a serious strategy designed to contest and dilute Iran’s growing influence in our geopolitical backyard.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.