Useful summary from Just the Facts following Ahmadinejad’s visit to Latin America last week helps to provide some of the detail for this post. His trip to attend the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil and solidify relationships in the region was a chance to assess how Iranian foreign policy is evolving in response to the changing political scene in Latin America. During his visit, Ahmadinejad made stops in Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela.
In his 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment (PDF), Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper noted that Iran continues to reach out to Latin America as a way to diminish its international isolation and bypass international sanctions. So far, Iranian relations with Latin America have only developed significantly with leftists governments that oppose U.S. leadership in the world, particularly Venezuela, Bolivia, and other ALBA members, as well as with Brazil.
The U.S. State Department reacted to the recent trip with characteristic rhetoric, saying Ahmadinejad was “looking for friends in wrong places.”
- The relationship between Bolivia and Iran has been increasingly friendly over the past few years. In 2007, trade and energy agreements were signed between the two countries and then extended in 2010. Bolivian President Evo Morales was also publicly reported praising Iranian investment by FARS news agency in 2007 and stated that his country “relies very much on Iran’s aids.”
- On this trip, Ahmadinejad was keen to highlight the similarities between the two countries. According to Ahmadinejad, both Iran and Bolivia have a colonial past and will progress by “work[ing] together against greedy governments, and states that want to stop others from developing, and from exercising freedom.” President Morales responded: “There is a permanent aggression against you, your government and the Iranian people, but I want to tell you that you are not alone because we are with you in your fight against imperialism.”
- An agreement was reached between Ahmadinejad and Bolivian President Evo Morales for the Iranian military to train ten counter-narcotics intelligence officers as per a new Memorandum of Understanding (PDF) between the two countries.
- The trip has also renewed multiple economic and agricultural agreements between the countries, including the construction of a cement factory and housing projects, among others, according to the Argentina Independent.
- The head of Iran’s Red Crescent Society, Abolhasan Faqih, said that Iran’s Red Crescent Society recently inaugurated a new medical center in Bolivia.
- Under President Lula da Silva, the relationship between Iran and Brazil became cordial, as Time reports, with Ahmadinejad visiting the country in 2009 and Lula returning the visit in 2010, to facilitate nuclear talks without US or EU powers, according to the BBC.
- This relationship has changed with President Dilma Rousseff’s election in Brazil, as she has distanced her country from Iran as CNN noted earlier this year. Rousseff has cited Iran’s poor human rights record as a reason for her distance, which runs contrary to her priorities for her own country.
- President Ahmadinejad was in Brazil for two days to take part in the Rio+20 Summit, though he also hoped to use the opportunity to reinvigorate ties with the Brazilian government. However, after a series of snubs by the Brazilian government, the success of the trip has been deemed a failure back at home in Iran. According to the Daily Telegraph, many Iranians are angry with the way in which President Ahmadinejad was treated and one Iranian MP criticized him “for failing to abandon the trip when he saw that he, and by extension, Iran, was being treated disrespectfully.”
- The Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Ahmadinejad’s time in Brazil was instead spent in meetings with Brazilian elites, a meeting with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and another with the former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, as well as addressing the Rio+20 Summit.
- Venezuela has probably had the closest ties with Iran of any country in the region in recent years. Since 1999, President Hugo Chavez has visited Tehran 13 times.
- This relationship seems stable; Ahmadinejad’s visit occurred one week after President Chavez confirmed that Venezuela was building unmanned drones with Iran’s help, as Reuters recently reported. Venezuelan-Iranian relations have most recently been demonstrated through reports that Iran has unrestricted access to a Venezuelan port, where Venezuelan workers are denied access. This has been reported in El Nuevo Herald, Die Welt and the Miami Herald, all citing confidential sources that allege the goal is to ultimately build a missile base, although at the moment it remains under a veil of secrecy.
- Although the meeting does not appear to have produced any new agreements, in his opening remarks at the presidential palace in Venezuela, Ahmadinejad offered to “always stand by the Venezuelan nation and their brave president Hugo Chavez”. In addition, the two presidents focused their meeting on reviewing current agreements including their “mutual investment of about $5 billion in factories to make cement, satellites, food, tractors and bicycles.”
- The relationship between Venezuela and Cuba is such that Iran seeming benefits by association. The Associated Press reported that Venezuela’s state-owned oil company will join efforts to look for oil in deep waters off Cuba’s coast:
- State-run Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, is next in line to drill after Malaysia’s Petronas completes its work, according to Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela’s oil minister and president of the company. He said Venezuela has budgeted an estimated $40 million for the project. Spanish oil company Repsol said last month that it would stop searching for oil off Cuba after hitting a dry well drilled at a cost of more than $100 million. “Repsol unfortunately didn’t have success in its well,” Ramirez said, “but that same platform is being used among all the companies that are participating there.”
- ING bank has recently been forced to pay $619m as part of the deferred prosecution agreements reached with the Justice Department and the New York County District Attorney’s Office, for conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA), and for violating New York state laws by illegally moving billions of dollars through the U.S. financial system on behalf of sanctioned Cuban and Iranian entities.
- Another country with close ties to Venezuela, and the smallest member of OPEC, Ecuador said on 23 May that it planned to buy about $400m in oil from Iran, despite US pressing for tighter sanctions.
- Although not on Ahmadinejad’s itinerary – he visited in January, Ecuador received a visit from his deputy for international affairs, Vice-President Ali Saeedlou, at the end of May, reportedly to deliver a presidential invitation to the Non-Aligned Movement’s August summit in Tehran. Agence France Press says Saeedlou told reporters, after meeting with President Rafael Correa, that the two has also talked about increasing trade and technology exchanges.
- In addition to the usual grandstanding we see whenever IAEA talks are in progress, Iran was perhaps attempting to exploit the relationship difficulties between Ecuador and the US following a diplomatic spat last year, in which ambassadors from both countries were expelled: Saeedlou arrived on the same day the new US Ambassador resumed his post in Quito.