Penny Watson M.A. is pursuing her PhD at The University of Houston. She received her Master's in Political Science at Sam Houston State University (TX). She is an adjunct professor at both Lone Star College and Sam Houston State University. While pursuing her MA, Penny published an article titled “Iran's Latin America Strategy: 2005 to Present” in the peer-reviewed journal Democracy and Security, and she’s currently working on another article. She completed her thesis on “Explaining Iran's Involvement in Latin America.” Penny grew up overseas and speaks Spanish, some French and Japanese, and is currently studying Farsi.
Radio Farda: What is the state of Iran’s diplomatic relations in Latin America? Where are its biggest targets for deepening ties and on what issues?
Penny Watson: Iran has closely aligned itself with numerous Latin American countries including Brazil, Ecuador, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and Nicaragua, all of whom have had leftist governments. Iran has formed these close relations since leftist leaders have come to power. These Latin American countries have formed many mutually beneficial enterprises with Iran, which have extended into investing in each other’s economy including natural resources (gas and oil), housing, tractor factories, and agriculture products. Two of Iran’s closest current allies in Latin America are Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Bolivian President Evo Morales because of their strong anti-Americanism. Both Maduro and Morales gave strong verbal support for the Iranian government during the recent protests in December 2017 and January 2018, as well as in their condemnation of U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against the Iranian regime. For Iran, deepening its ties with the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA, an intergovernmental organization that was founded in 2004 by Venezuela and Cuba as an alternative to U.S. free trade initiatives in the region, is essential to increasing its sphere of influence. Iran is one of three countries that have observer status with ALBA, the other two are Syria, and Haiti. Iran is currently active with ALBA. The ALBA school in Bolivia is being used by Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to train extremist fighters.
RadioFarda: How do building ties to Latin America fit into Iran’s foreign policy objectives?
Watson: An alliance has emerged between ultra-right-wing Islamic fundamentalist groups and far left regimes in Latin America. Although there is little ideological similarity between ultra-right wing Islamic fundamentalist ideology and secular left-wing socialism or communism, the two at the strategic level oppose the capitalist West under U.S. hegemony.This geostrategic alliance between unlikely allies is due to their common anti-American sentiments. By creating alliances in Latin America, Iran has strategically placed itself within striking distance of the United States.In a special briefing in October 2017, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, National Counterterrorism Center Director stated “It’s our assessment that Hizballah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook.”
There are several explanations for Iran’s activities in Latin America. One explanation is that the close locale provides Iran, directly or through its proxy groups such as Hezbollah, the opportunities to attack the United States interests should the United States threaten regime change. A second explanation argues that Iran is building the alliance to gain nuclear technology and the necessary raw materials such as tantalum, uranium, thorium, beryllium, zirconium, hafnium, and lithium found in countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Colombia. A third and a benign explanation argues that Iran is purely interested in beneficial economic relations. In my article entitled “Iran’s Latin America Strategy: 2005 to Present” I have argued that the first two explanations are more plausible. A substantial proportion of Iran’s activities in Latin America are covert in nature. Hezbollah has been successfully dealing in asymmetric warfare. They have had a presence in Latin America since the 1980’s, and that presence has grown exponentially. The trade deals and MOU’s that have been negotiated between Latin American countries and Iran have largely either gone unfulfilled or have served as a cover or front companies for money laundering and drug trafficking. There has been ongoing vast support for Iran from the Venezuelan government. For example, Venezuela’s Vice President, Tareck El Aissami, who has been accused of drug trafficking and money laundering, as previous head of the office of immigration (Onidex) issued passports to many Iranians and is suspected of having issued them to members of Hezbollah and Hamas. It is possible that these passports provide them entry into the United States.
RadioFarda: What opportunities does Iran see for expanding ties in Latin America? What are the biggest obstacles?
Watson: Opportunities for Iran in Latin America appear less abundant today than in the previous 10 to 15 years, as a result of economic and political changes in the region. For example, the replacement of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva—and his successor Dilma Rousseff—in Brazil with Michel Temer, means a leadership far less amenable to a close relationship with Iran.The same is true in Argentina, where Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was replaced with Mauricio Macri as president.
Moreover, Iran’s staunch ally Venezuela is facing its own severe economic and political challenges, restricting the benefits of friendship to rhetorical support. Therefore, in Latin America’s two largest economies, Brazil and Argentina, and its most friendly, Venezuela, political and economic changes have limited the scope of opportunity for Iran. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif is urging stronger ties in Latin America and Africa. He visited Brazil and Uruguay as part of his four-leg tour in April 2018. He states that he seeks to enhance bilateral ties and economic relations with Latin America although he did not state specifically what those would entail.
Radio Farda: In light of President Trump’s withdraw of the JCPoA and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Iran strategy statement, what are Iran’s options in Latin America?
Watson: As mentioned above Iran has developed an extensive network of support in Latin America. At a minimum Iran can rely upon the vote from Bolivia which currently sits on the UN Security Council. Iran also will certainly receive verbal support from its allies such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. If the conflict between the U.S. and Iran becomes violent as we have observed Israel’s attacks on Iran’s assets in Syria, then there is a good likelihood that Iran will use Hizbollah or its own personnel to attack American targets in Latin America. Iran attacked Israeli embassy in Argentina on March 17, 1992 and the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in July 18, 1994. If history is a guide, then we should expect Iran to do the same against U.S. interests in Latin America.