In Washington, conventional wisdom has long held that Iran’s presence south of the U.S. border constitutes little more than an axis of annoyance. In this telling, Iran’s activities in Central and South America—from numerous commercial and trade deals with various nations to the establishment of cultural centers throughout the region—are disorganized, opportunistic, and ultimately of little consequence.
That narrative has proved remarkably persistent, and—in part as a result—Washington has historically paid scant attention to Iran’s presence in the hemisphere. But there is ample evidence to the contrary in the form of Iran’s strategic cooperation with the region’s anti-American regimes, and in well-documented instances of Iranian-sponsored subversion organized there and aimed at U.S. interests and allies. Now, with the Islamic Republic increasingly unfettered from sanctions as a result of last year’s nuclear deal with the West, there are unmistakable signs that it is widening its presence in the Americas in earnest.
TOUR DE FORCE
On August 21, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif kicked off a six-nation tour of Latin America. The trip, which entailed visits to Bolivia, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, was intended as a very public affirmation of Iran’s enduring investment in the Western Hemisphere.
“There are many fields for economic cooperation between Iran and these six countries, but the capacities have yet to be fully utilized,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, told state media ahead of the trip. Zarif’s visit, he said, was intended to correct this deficiency and elevate Iran’s economic cooperation with the region to “a whole new level.”
But Zarif’s choice of stopping points suggests that the trip is much more about geopolitics than it is about trade. With the notable exception of Chile, the nations that Iran’s foreign minister is courting are all in dire economic straits, struggling with high levels of inflation, rampant joblessness, and—in the case of Venezuela—a full-blown meltdown of the
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