Iran and Latin America

Written by

The war drums are getting louder by the day here in Washington DC. Naval vessels are testing territorial boundaries around Hormuz like canines, and we seem to be circling into a conflict with Iran that is being billed as ‘inevitable.’ Of course, nothing is inevitable about war, and the current US campaign of sanctions against Iran have as much to do with tensions as anything Iran is alleged to be building on the nuclear front.

Things are certainly heating up on the Republican campaign trail. The efforts to paint the President as ‘soft on Iran’ are ridiculous given Obama’s hard-line stance. “It is precisely because the Obama Administration has constructed a sanctions program without precedent, and because the Obama Administration has funded and supported multinational cyber-sabotage efforts against the Iranian nuclear program, that Iran is panicking and lashing-out” (full text here). It seems that a Republican President guarantees a war with Iran, while a second Obama Administration only makes it highly likely. Decisions, decisions…

Amidst all of this there is a renewed focus in Washington on Latin American ties to Iran. Of course we aren’t really talking about Latin America as a whole here, we are talking about progressive administrations that are unhappy with US foreign policy (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba). For long-time observers, the phrase ‘renewed focus’ should cause some chills and more than a little bit of concern. Last Thursday the Senate sub-committee on foreign affairs held a hearing on the subject, and the results were not encouraging for those of us seeking just US policies toward Latin America.

Ambassador Roger Noriega takes the cake for fear-mongering: “[Chavez and Ahmadinejad] are conspiring to wage an asymmetrical struggle against US security and to abet Iran’s illicit nuclear program. Their clandestine activities pose a clear and present danger to regional peace and security” (Emphasis in original, full testimony here). Ms. Arnson of the Woodrow Wilson Center painted a more realist picture, and called for restraint and a holistic view: “Attention to this issue should not overshadow the broader dynamics in the hemisphere, marked by economic growth, the fight against poverty and inequality, the emergence of Brazil as a global actor, expanded relations with China and other Asian countries, democratic deepening, and a growing clamor for the United States to reform its immigration and counter-drug policies.”

Once again our politicians are making the case that a foreign ‘enemy’ power plans to use Latin America as the launching pad for a ‘direct attack’ on the United States. These statements are heavy on bluster and anger and light on specifics and reason. Most analysis of the Iranian relationships in Latin America have concluded that: 1. They are based largely on shared criticism of US policy interference around the world, 2. The relationships yield relatively little in the way of economic assistance or trade, and nearly nothing in the way of military exchange, and 3. Many policies of the Iranian government are in direct conflict with the ideals of progressive movements in Latin America, and Iran remains unpopular in the region.

This begs the question: are the hawks unaware of the history of US involvement in Latin America and the terrible results (some evidence for this option here), or is this an intentional misconstruing of the facts to justify meddling abroad (as many believe is the case in the campaign for war in Iran)? Either way, members of Congress are talking about the Iranian/Latin American relationship as a ‘clear and present danger’  to the United States, which sounds an awful lot like the Bush-era harping about WMDs and an al-Qaeda connection in Iraq, or the tired old ‘not in my hemisphere’ application of the Monroe Doctrine that destabilized Central America in the seventies… eighties… and nineties… and the aughts.

Aside from American exceptionalism, antipathy towards the global Left and an apparently insatiable urge to send northerners with guns gallivanting in Latin America, what purpose could military intervention in the region serve? In a recent post, the Nicaragua Dispatch writes:

With drug-war violence, gangs, political instability and citizen insecurity rampant throughout Mexico and most of Latin America, the Western Hemisphere might have all the ingredients the military-industrial complex—both public and private—needs to retool its mission and head back out into the field.

Add a dash of Iranian mischief and Hezbollah intrigue, and defense contractors might have the selling points they need to secure another allotment of lucrative contracts in this hemisphere, says Latin America analyst Samuel Logan, director of the Southern Pulse research and analysis firm.

While I believe that the talk in Congress is more about being tough in an election year and taking progressive Latin American administrations to task, a military venture (especially one carried out by contractors) would be a tidy solution to our overabundant war machine and vast network of semi-official guns for hire, not to mention all the people (and cash) tied up in counter-terrorism. This expediency does not, however, mean it would be a good idea for anyone. The relationships that Iran is trying to foster seem more about relieving the pressures of international isolation. For the ALBA countries the big draw seems to be a common anti-US intervention sentiment. Aggressive US policy would do little to deter Iran, and could in fact make the case that such an alliance is necessary in Latin America.