|Inside Story: Is Iran making new friends in Latin America?|
If past visits to the region are anything to go by, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s five-day tour of Latin America will probably be full of bombastic rhetoric, but short on concrete, new policy developments.
As tensions heat-up over Iran’s nuclear programme, and sanctions choke economic growth, Ahmadinejad is visiting Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, countries that – in his words – “resist the oppression of the United States”.
The Latin America tour, which began on Sunday, comes against a backdrop of diplomatic sparring between the US and the Islamic Republic over new Western sanctions and threats from Tehran about stopping oil traffic through the strategically crucial Strait of Hormuz.
“They [the US] accuse us of being warmongers,” Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez said on Monday, after a prolonged embrace with his Iranian counterpart.
Ahmadinejad, heaping praise on his host, said: “Despite those arrogant people who do not wish us to be together, we will unite forever.”
The US State Department described Iran’s mission to Latin America as a “desperate” search for friends.
Symbolism, rather than concrete agreements, will be the thrust of Ahmadinejad’s diplomacy, said Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist who currently leads the Council for the National Interest, a Washington-based lobby group.
“It is a bid to create a basis of political support among nations in Latin America who are believed to be estranged from the US,” Giraldi told Al Jazeera. “I think the tour is aimed at the domestic market in Iran. The sanctions are becoming quite crippling; [legislative] elections are coming up [in March] and this is a push-back to show Iran does indeed have friends.”
On the surface, the two leaders do not have much in common: One leads the Islamic Republic of Iran and the other calls himself a “Christian socialist”. But Chavez and Ahmadinejad clearly have personal chemistry.
Iranian leader seeks support in South America
“I think there is a real affinity between the two leaders, which doesn’t have so much to do with underlying ideologies,” said Alexander Main, Latin America specialist at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research. “Both have a strong populist streak, a rejection of elites and a belief in connecting to the poor.”
Whether populist politics translate into actual policies –particularly in Iran – is debatable, Main said.
Despite his recent bout of cancer, Chavez is politically stronger than his Iranian counterpart, who is beholden to a powerful clerical establishment and the country’s Supreme Leader, Main told Al Jazeera.
Ahmadinejad, who has visited Latin America more frequently than US President Barack Obama, is on his fifth trip to Venezuela.
Since taking office in 2005, the Iranian leader has opened six new embassies in the region and some US officials have raised concerns about the Islamic Republic’s growing diplomatic footprint.
WikiLeaks cables from 2009 warned of Iranian plans to mine uranium for its nuclear programme in Venezuela. Manhattan’s former attorney general, Robert Morgenthau, fretted about “Iranian nuclear and long-range missile threats, and creeping Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere”.
Venezuelan banks have also been used to circumvent sanctions on Iran, and some US officials allege that Hezbollah fighters – backed by Iran – have been setting up operations in Venezuela.
“I know the intelligence community looked seriously at allegations that Iran was using Venezuelan banks to launder money for terrorist activities and to buy uranium,” said Giraldi, the CIA veteran. “It came up with little or no evidence.”
While there is not much evidence of nefarious dealings, Ahmadinejad and Chavez certainly do enjoy criticising Uncle Sam with rhetorical flourishes.
“Venezuela and Iran want to be able to show they have a broader alliance to balance against the US,” Greg Weeks, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, told Al Jazeera. “If Iran starts really getting punished by sanctions, Venezuela won’t be able to save it. When push comes to shove, the value for each country is relatively small.”
Just days before Ahmadinejad’s visit, the US expelled Venezuela’s consul-general to Miami, after a Spanish TV network broadcast a documentary that alleged Iranian, Venezuelan and Cuban diplomats had discussed cyber-attacks against the US.
“Iran’s track record has been bad,” said Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute who served on the US National Security Council in the 1970s and 1980s. “He [Ahmadinejad] arrives, makes newspaper headlines, says ‘We are going to build a port there and an industrial plant here’, and never follows through.”
More than 100 development projects have been announced during previous visits, but many of them have not gotten off the ground. Brazil, South America’s biggest economy, is notably absent from Ahmadinejad’s trip.
“Most of the countries that have signed agreements with Iran have very little to show for it,” Sick told Al Jazeera.
“Iran sees these sanctions being imposed by the US congress as the equivalent to a military blockage “
– Gary Sick, former member, US National Security Council
Pledges in 2007 and 2008 to build a $350m port in Nicaragua and an oil refinery in Ecuador, for example, have yet to materialise.
Yet, some development projects have actually been built due to the “south- south” cooperation extolled by populist leaders.
“Iranian-designed tractors are all over the Venezuelan countryside and have been used as part of international cooperation efforts, in Haiti for example,” Main said. The two countries have also been cooperating to build low-income housing.
An Iranian-made oil tanker with the capacity to carry 113,00 tonnes, the first of its kind to be built in the Middle East, will be delivered to Venezuela in September, Iran’s ISNA news agency reported recently.
Iran may not be famous for its manufacturing prowess, but Iran and Venezuela have co-operated for decades through OPEC, the Organisation for Petroleum Exporting Countries. Both are seen as hawks favouring high prices – and this relationship goes back two decades, before Ahmadinejad or Chavez arrived onto the political scene.
Iran is the world’s fifth-biggest oil producer, pumping 4.2m barrels per day. Venezuela is number 13 with 2.4m barrels per day, according to CIA figures.
“Venezuela and Iran can call for higher prices [within OPEC], but they can’t get the Saudis to play along,” Mark Katz, a professor of government at George Mason University who studies the Middle East and Latin America, told Al Jazeera.
During one of Ahmadinejad’s previous visits to South America, Etemaad-e Melli, a reform-minded newspaper in Iran, called the Venezuelan, Ecuadorean and Nicaraguan presidents, “left-wing friends, good for coffee-shop discussions but not for setting our security, political and economic priorities”.
From a security perspective, the stakes have only increased. “Iran sees these sanctions being imposed by the US congress as the equivalent to a military blockage,” Sick said.
Oil sales account for about 80 per cent of Iranian export revenue and 50 per cent of the government’s budget. Sanctions targeting the industry amount to an “existential threat” for Tehran, Sick said.
Military confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz would invariably rattle energy markets, sending prices rising rapidly. Ironically, this instability could benefit Venezuela by increasing oil revenue.
“The potential of oil production being disrupted has more of an effect on oil prices than anything Iran is doing at OPEC,” Professor Weeks said. “Iran right now can get a boost by ratcheting up tensions with the US. “
In this regard, co-operation between Venezuela and Iran might mean something more substantial than shaky commercial agreements, stern-looking presidential honour guards or bear hugs between self-proclaimed anti-imperialists.
Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris