Iran Is Working Hard to Revive Anti-U.S. Operations in Latin America

Reactivating old alliances in America’s soft underbelly is not as easy as it seems.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting in Managua on July 22, 2019.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting in Managua on July 22, 2019. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Just as Iran’s adventures in the Western Hemisphere were beginning to fade from memory, Iranian passenger jets began landing in Venezuela again in late April. Industry sources reported that the Iranians were providing parts and catalysts to restart dilapidated refineries as well as military trainers and drones to help the government tighten control over its own security forces and increasingly desperate population. According to a Bloomberg report, Iran even flew out some $500 million in gold bullion as payment for services rendered. In May, five tankers loaded with gasoline left Iranian ports for Venezuela. While these actions appear to be a response to a distress call from a once close ally, they are also a reminder of Iran’s unfinished business in the Americas—and the pivotal role Teheran hopes that Caracas can still play in reviving Iranian influence in the region.There was growing disappointment among Iran’s senior leaders over costly investments in Venezueala that never paid off.

To be sure, Iran has significant history in the Americas. Its relationship with Venezuela goes back at least to 1960, when both countries were founding members of OPEC. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution that deposed the U.S.-supported Shah, Iran developed close ties to Cuba and Nicaragua, aligning itself with those communist regimes in thwarting U.S. influence. With the election of the strongman Hugo Chávez in 1998, Venezuela opened its doors to Iranian cooperation on a broad range of internal projects and helped it navigate difficult cultural waters to broker alliances with Bolivia’s populist president Evo Morales and Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa. Key to Iranian-Venezuelan collaboration was a personal relationship that developed between Chávez and then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who made frequent visits and signed as many as 300 agreements. However, the two countries’ relationship lapsed in 2013 when Chávez died and Ahmadinejad left office.

By some accounts, there was growing disappointment among Iran’s senior leaders over years of costly investments that never paid off. A joint “anti-imperialist” auto factory in Venezuela never met production goals and produced poor-quality cars that didn’t sell well. A Caracas-Tehran airline route, established in 2007 despite low traffic, hemorrhaged money and ceased operations in 2010. Oil ventures soured with contracts that Iran saw as disadvantageous, while potential mining deals failed to go beyond exploration. In fact, many of the highly touted mineral resources fell into the hands of Colombian guerrillas and criminal gangs. In the end, current Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro’s incompetent financial management and practice of recycling corrupt cronies through top leadership positions probably made further cooperation unpalatable.

Relationships withered elsewhere in Latin America, too. In Bolivia, joint exploitation of vast lithium deposits evaporated as Morales eventually chose more practical German and Chinese partners. After a flawed reelection bid led to Morales’s resignation, the interim government repurposed the joint military training school that Iran had built north of Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz. In Ecuador, banking partnerships, a power plant project, military cooperation, and joint mining ventures ground to a halt in part because of U.S. sanctions on Iran and because Correa’s hand-picked successor opted to improve relations with the United States instead. Despite solidarity with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in foiling the United States, Nicaragua’s old debts have gotten in the way of major new support from Tehran. Finally, the smattering of cultural and religious centers that Iran established in the region have so far failed to inspire significant conversions to Shiite Islam or a groundswell of support for Iran.Hezbollah may have gained a new advantage in South America when hundreds of Lebanese and Syrians, allegedly including Hezbollah operatives, gained Venezuelan residency documents.

That doesn’t mean that Iran has no more irons in the fire in the Americas. Iran and Cuba share a long-standing bilateral commission on economic, scientific, and technical cooperation. Ties to Bolivia’s political left are still warm. Presidential candidate Luis Arce of Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism party has turned to Iran’s Spanish-language HispanTV to criticize the interim government against which he is campaigning. HispanTV has broad reach in Latin America with internet sites and a presence on satellite and cable TV systems disseminating propaganda primarily denigrating the United States. In the 1990s, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, financed global terrorism operations from South America’s lawless tri-border region, where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. International security cooperation helped curtail these activities, but Hezbollah operatives in South America may have gained a new advantage when hundreds of Lebanese and Syrians, allegedly including Hezbollah operatives, received Venezuelan residency documents that allowed them to travel freely throughout Latin America. This was facilitated by Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s minister of petroleum who was the deputy head of the national identification office at the time. Aissami has been indicted on drug trafficking charges in the United States and sanctioned for his alleged dealings with drug lords; the New York Times has reported on an intelligence dossier linking him and his father to Hezbollah’s recruiting and fundraising efforts, in which the issuance of residency permits was alleged to have played a role.

These ties might not seem as substantial as the joint military, financial, and industrial relations that once characterized Iran’s influence—but they would still be enough to turn up the heat on the United States and its democratic allies, especially if Latin America’s political pendulum swings back to the radical left. The trouble is, it would be much harder for Tehran’s plans to succeed if the Maduro regime collapsed. Hence the Iranian focus on assisting Venezuela’s oil industry, which supplies 90 percent of the country’s income to fund social programs and maintain a large army. Having forgone investment and maintenance, Venezuela can barely pump a third of the oil it once produced and refine none of it into gasoline or other usable products. Lacking investment as well, the electrical grid is failing, food distribution is faltering, people are starving, and the health system is a wreck. Low on gold and cash to pay bills, Venezuela will soon no longer be able to buy food and medicine, most of which it currently imports. In Iran’s eyes, the mothership supporting its regional hopes is falling apart.Russia and China may be willing to share some of the burden with Iran to safeguard their geopolitical footprint in Latin America.

If the dictatorship in Venezuela fails, Cuba and Nicaragua could be next, taking out Iran’s remaining Western Hemisphere partners in thwarting U.S. influence. So helping the Maduro regime reactivate its refining operations to supply the country with gasoline and generate revenue is clearly worth Iran’s trouble. How much more it can do, considering its own shrinking economy, is an open question. Russia and China—both of which have seen their investments go sour in Venezuela—may be willing to share some of the burden with Iran to safeguard their geopolitical footprint in the region. Beyond that, Iran’s leaders may be eyeing an opportunity to recoup prior losses by requiring payment in what’s left of Venezuela’s $6.3 billion in gold reserves in exchange for technocrats and security personnel from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to put Venezuela’s house in order—Persian style.

What the United States and Latin America’s democracies would do in response to a resurgent Iranian presence in the Americas is hard to imagine during the current COVID-19 pandemic. What’s certain is that meddling of that magnitude would be difficult to ignore.

Stephen Johnson is a senior advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute. He was the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2007 to 2009.

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