Bolsonaro and the Israeli-Iranian rivalry in South America

The new right-wing presidency in Brazil will likely hurt Iranian interests in South America.

Bolsonaro and Netanyahu Reuters
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro seen with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on December 28, 2018 [File: Fernando Frazao/Agencia Brasil/Reuters]

Iran and Israel have been bitter enemies since 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries toppled the Pahlavi regime and established the Islamic Republic in its stead. The hostility has since spilled over into regions beyond the Middle East – its hot spot – and affected the national security and foreign policies of nations across the world.    

South America with its revolutionary history and traditionally leftist politics is one such region where Tehran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah have sought, with relative success, to undermine Israeli interests.

The July 1994 bombing of the Jewish centre, Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), which killed  85 and wounded over 300 people, was a watershed moment in the escalating spillover of animosity between Iran and Israel. More than two decades later in January 2015, Alberto Nisman, the Argentinian prosecutor leading the investigation into the bombing, was found dead in his apartment, a few days after accusing then-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of covering up the Iranian connection with the South American nation’s deadliest terror attack.         

WATCH: Brazil’s president-elect shakes up foreign relations (2:31)

While Tehran continues to hold sway in parts of South America, the rise of a new staunch Israel supporter in the region might significantly curb its influence in the coming years. Far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly expressed his sympathies for Israel, was recently inaugurated as the president of Brazil – the region’s most powerful and populous nation.

His presidency will certainly pursue a different approach towards relations with Israel, steering away from the confrontational policies of previous leftist governments, which went as far as recognising the Palestinian state and recalling the Brazilian ambassador to protest Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza.

Even before he officially took his post, Bolsonaro started making promises to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The promises were re-emphasised when in late December Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid an official visit to Brazil, a first for an Israeli head of state. “More than partners, we will be brothers,” the far-right Brazilian president said in response to Netanyahu’s emphasis on the importance of “mutual cooperation” to create “enormous benefits … for our two peoples”.

This beneficial cooperation will likely include shared efforts to curb Iranian influence and crack down on Hezbollah’s suspicious financial activities in Latin America, which have also become a major target in the Trump administration’s campaign against narcotics trade and ” terrorism”.

In September 2018, Brazilian police arrested Assad Ahmad Barakat, a Lebanese national accused by the United States and Argentina of laundering money on behalf of Hezbollah and serving as one of its chief financial operators in the region. In 2006, the US Treasury Department labelled Barakat a “global terrorist” and put his name on the blacklist of Hezbollah financiers in the Triple Frontier, a tri-border area connecting Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.

Brazil’s new Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, an anti-left admirer of US President Donald Trump and his “America First” nationalist foreign policy, has already described the Iranian regime as part of the “horrible Islamic fundamentalism that has come to contaminate the Middle East”. He has also attacked the Venezuelan government, a key Iran ally in South America, and urged the international community to “liberate” Venezuela from the “tyranny of its leftist government led by President Nicolas Maduro. “All of the world’s countries must stop supporting him and come together to liberate Venezuela”, Araujo tweeted.

In the wake of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” against the Gaza Strip in December 2008 – which left around 1,400 Palestinians including 400 children dead and thousands more wounded – the Venezuelan government under former President Hugo Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador to Caracas before severing all diplomatic relations. Chavez’s “bromance” with then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the close bilateral ties their administrations enjoyed played a key role in the decision. A few months later, in April 2009, Venezuela initiated formal diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority and announced the opening of a Palestinian embassy in Caracas. 

With Brazil about to turn into a bastion of pro-Israeli politics under Bolsonaro, Iran’s main ally in the region, Venezuela, will likely experience increased political and economic pressure from its southern neighbour. The new Brazilian government is also likely to pursue regime change policies similar to the US’.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, President Bolsonaro’s son and a legislator in the Chamber of Deputies, has also echoed a foreign policy vision similar to Brazilian Foreign Minister Araujo’s, with respect to relations with Venezuela and Iran. In an October interview with Bloomberg, he made his stance on Iran very clear: “Pro-Iranian position? It’ll change,” he said, adding that “our side is being against Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic State [of Iraq and the Levant].”  

The Bolsonaro government’s decision to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has angered the 22-member Arab League, but it doesn’t seem to work as a check on Brasilia’s pro-Israel foreign policy, particularly when it comes to countering the Islamic Republic. Some of the more powerful players in the Arab world, not least Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have been warming up to Israel since the start of Trump’s presidency and sought, with American mediation, to foster an unlikely alliance against their shared nemesis, Iran. 

Perhaps what could limit the aggressiveness of Brazil’s emerging anti-Iran stance would be the sizable volume of bilateral trade, which rose considerably after the 2015 nuclear deal and made the South American nation one of Iran’s main trade partners in 2017.

Still, as Bolsonaro starts throwing his weight in South America, Iran will certainly feel increasing hostility in the region and will likely lose some political battles in its diplomatic war with Israel. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.