Meir Javedanfar

The world ignores Iran’s interest in Latin America to global detriment

Iran's shady activities in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba help the regime defy sanctions and ignore the needs of its own desperate population
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi shakes hands with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, as he receives the Order of Libertador y Libertadora de Primera Clase, at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, June 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi shakes hands with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, as he receives the Order of Libertador y Libertadora de Primera Clase, at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, June 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

July 18 marked the 29th anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires by Hezbollah, a terrorist proxy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The AMIA bombing, which killed 85 people and injured more than 300, remains the worst terror attack in Argentina’s history. Since then, the Iranian regime and its proxies have expanded their footprint in Latin America, pursuing sanctions evasion, narco-trafficking, and money laundering to facilitate their global campaign of terror. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s visits last month to several Latin American countries, including Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, show the importance Tehran gives to the region in pursuit of its ambitions.

A key goal of Raisi’s trip was to show the Iranian people that, despite claims by the West and Iranian opposition groups, their country is not isolated. Hence, Iran’s regime media gave much publicity to the pomp the Iranian president received in Latin America. Even Iran’s First Lady Jamileh Alamolhoda contributed to the PR efforts by agreeing to be interviewed extensively by TeleSur, Venezuela’s state-run international TV platform. This is unprecedented, as no other wife of an Iranian president did so.

The 28 various accords of trade and economic cooperation that Tehran signed with Latin American countries also received much attention in the Iranian press. They include an accord to supply Venezuela with petroleum engineering and maintenance expertise and an agreement to supply Nicaragua with medicine and medical supplies.

Despite such publicity efforts, the Iranian newspaper E’temad criticized an agreement to open a car production assembly line in Venezuela, since those same cars are shunned by Iranian consumers for their bad quality. Furthermore, judging from social media reactions, Iran’s population does not seem impressed. And for good reason: the impact of Iran’s relations with Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba on the well-being of Iranians is microscopic.

The biggest challenge that confronts Iran’s population every day is economic. Iran’s inflation is so high that the government has stopped publishing official figures. Rising housing costs are pushing people outside of major cities and causing a spike in homelessness. Poverty is increasing at such a fast pace that some children younger than 10 are being forced to look for work. Worse, some mothers have sold their newborn babies for as little as $120, due to rising poverty and drug use in Iranian society.

What Iranians desperately need are improved economic conditions. Yet the countries that Raisi visited in Latin America, many of which are under sanctions just like Iran, face their own extensive economic struggles and cannot contribute to the well-being of Iran’s economy. Nicaragua, for example, still owes Iran for a 1986 oil debt, the equivalent of at least $160 million today. Of course, this debt was not mentioned, and Raisi and Nicaragua’s leader, Daniel Ortega, spoke only words of praise for each other.

Similarly, Cuba is not in a position to improve the well-being of Iranians. Its economy is sanctioned and in dire straits. Iran’s interest in Cuba may have been sparked by recent reports that China plans to open an electronic surveillance station in Cuba, which might have led Raisi to make a similar proposal to the cash strapped Cuban regime.

Of the three Latin American countries that Raisi visited, Venezuela has the largest economy. With several new Leftist governments in Latin America embracing the Maduro government in Venezuela, including Brazil under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Colombia under President Gustavo Petro and Chile’s government, Iran sees possibilities for further diplomatic engagement.

Meanwhile, Venezuela has expressed its desire to join the so-called BRICS group of countries, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. So far, China, Russia and Brazil have stated that they would welcome such a development, and India and South Africa are likely to as well. Venezuela joining BRICS would be an important diplomatic coup for Iran.

Venezuela also provides a lucrative market for Iran’s energy sector. Owing to sanctions, and major migration of skills and capital from Venezuela, its energy infrastructure, especially its oil refineries, is in desperate need of maintenance and upgrade. Venezuela also wants to develop its petrochemical industry. Throughout the years, Iran has developed its capabilities in the energy sector and therefore plans to help Venezuela do the same. Venezuela would likely pay Iran in various ways, including gold bullion, a method they have used since 2011.

However, the Iranian companies that do business with the Venezuelan government are almost all regime-owned. Their business dealings are not only non-transparent, but opaque, and no one really knows what happens to the gold bullion and other payments that Iran receives from Venezuela.

Another area of bilateral cooperation is through Hezbollah: Venezuela reportedly allows Hezbollah to use Venezuelan territory to deal in narcotics. The money generated assists Hezbollah’s military and political operations in Lebanon and elsewhere. It also helps the Iranian regime by generating revenue through narco-trafficking, and thereby reducing Hezbollah’s burden on the Iranian budget.

The presence of Hezbollah affiliated cartels in Venezuela could also pose a major threat to US and Israeli interests in Latin America. Since 2015, reportedly 7 million Venezuelans have left their country, because of the deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation. The majority have left via land, to neighboring countries such as Colombia and Brazil. Many have reached as far away as Chile, Argentina and the United States. Iranian or Hezbollah intelligence operatives, using the cover of refugees, could establish terror cells across the Americas.

Lastly, Venezuela’s banks, unlike those of Iran’s, are not blacklisted by the Paris-based global money laundering and terror financing watchdog, Financial Action Task Force. This means that the Iranian regime could use such banks for money laundering, thereby enabling the regime to continue breaking sanctions. This will enable the regime to defy the international community, while continuing to ignore the needs of Iran’s population, whose desperation has reached unprecedented levels.

These latest efforts by the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism and antisemitism to solidify and expand its foothold in Latin America spell trouble not only for Jewish communities and Israeli nationals in the region, but also for the United States and its transatlantic allies committed to containing the threats Tehran and its proxies pose worldwide. By visiting Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, the Iranian regime wants to continue sending the message to the United States that it has been sending since the early 2000s: just as the United States is present in areas that the Islamic Republic considers its sphere of influence, such as Iraq and Syria, the Islamic Republic has a presence in areas that the United States considers its own sphere of influence, namely Latin America.

Raisi’s Latin America trip should serve as a grim reminder that the struggle against the Islamic Republic’s nefarious policies requires concerted global action on both sides of the Atlantic.

About the Author
Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli lecturer, author, and commentator. He has been teaching Iranian politics at Reichman University in Israel since 2012 and is Anti-Defamation League’s Iran consultant.
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