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Friday, March 02, 2007

Iran’s deepening presence in the Americas

Iran’s plans to open a series of embassies in Latin America is a sign of Washington’s weakened position in the region and underscores the likelihood that the US has lost out to its geopolitical rivals.

Commentary by Sam Logan for ISN Security Watch (02/03/2007)

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Mostafavi said on 27 February that his country would re-open embassies in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay, and open a representative office in Bolivia. Other countries are also interested, Mostafavi said.

Adding to plans for an Iranian embassy in Nicaragua and an established presence in Venezuela, it is not a stretch to consider how the future of a significantly increased Iranian presence in Latin America may contribute to the continued cooling in relations between the region and the US.

By now it is clear that Washington’s disengagement from the region has made room for China and Russia, the former taking advantage of opportunities to secure natural resources and the latter seeking closer military-military ties. Iran’s presence is different and perhaps more significant.

China and Russia are not considered state-sponsors of terrorism by the US, and while organized crime from both countries has a long history of operation in the region, neither country supports a known terrorist organization, as Iran is accused of.

But such considerations are far afield of the more sobering reality of Iranian money directed toward Latino development projects and how development money with little to no strings attached is a considerably better offer than the arrogant carrot and stick approach Washington has maintained in Latin America for decades.

Iran is clearly taking advantage of an opportunity, an alternative, created by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

During a conference held in Tehran on 27 February, a number of papers prepared by Latin American academics elucidated on how Iran may engage Latin America. Iran used the conference as a stage to pronounce what appears to be an Iranian foreign policy priority: the development of economic activity in Latin America.

"Today, Iranian contractors are highly respected in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and even Mexico, where they sympathize with Iranian companies. Meanwhile, the heads of states and politicians of these countries support them," said Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs Ali-Reza Sheikh Attar during the conference.

"The level of Iran-Brazil economic relations are [sic] rather high. But our trade exchanges with other Latin American countries are quite limited and need to be expanded," he added.

This conference is the latest signal from Iran that closer ties with Latino States is in Iran’s best interest. The policy gained traction when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first visited Venezuela to sign a number of agreements with Chavez in September 2006. He returned again in January this year to take a tour of Latin America. Chavez ensured a welcoming environment for Iran in Nicaragua and Ecuador. During that tour, Venezuela and Iran signed a number of agreements, including the creation of a US$2 billion fund for development projects in Latin America.

These prior visits and meetings with a range of Latin American business leaders and dignitaries set the stage for the conference in Tehran. The re-opening of embassies around the region is perhaps the last step before normalized relations take hold and Iran achieves non-pariah state status in Latin America.

Considering Washington’s incessant attempts to deride Iran as the world’s rogue state, an elevated status in Latin America, Washington’s backyard, is a significant geopolitical victory.

Opening embassies in various Latino countries is the first step towards closer ties between target states and Iran. With Chavez promoting Iranian products and businesses in the region, it is only a matter of time before Iranian companies begin installing offices in various cities throughout the Americas.

As China and Russia have increased the presence of Chinese businesses and Russian military contractors in Latin America, Washington has done little to protect its backyard or dissuade these strong nations from influencing Latin American states.

While Washington may not sit back and watch as Iran becomes a strong presence in Latin America, Iranian leaders know that it will be another two years before Washington will be in a strong position to do anything to stymie Iran’s presence in Latin America. And by then it might be too late.

US President George W Bush will leave many legacies. Perhaps his most notable will be linked to the outcome of the war in Iraq, but there’s a chance many people around the world will look back upon Bush’s presidency and say it was on his watch that the US lost Latin America. With Russia, China and now Iran planting roots in the region, this has almost become a forgone conclusion.

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