The New York Times
When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran begins a four-nation tour of Latin America on Sunday, showcasing his support in the region against a backdrop of international tensions over his nation’s nuclear program, he is set to visit some of the United States’ most ardent critics: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador.
But the list of countries Ahmadinejad will not be visiting is equally telling.
Though Iran is reeling from successive rounds of international and unilateral sanctions, Ahmadinejad is not visiting Brazil, the region’s economic powerhouse. Nor is he going to other large countries like Mexico, Colombia and Argentina, underscoring that his visit is limited to nations without extensive influence or the capacity to offer much of a major economic partnership.
“If Iran is intent on spreading its political influence, it will not find a hospitable environment in Latin America,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “Most governments may want more breathing space from Washington, but they are not looking to be aligned strategically with Tehran.”
The trip, Ahmadinejad’s sixth official visit to the region since becoming president in 2005, seems intended as a counterstrike against Iran’s increasing international isolation. But his previous trips have not always gone smoothly; his one visit to Brazil, in 2009, was met with protests.
“Dealing with Iran has been nettlesome for Brazil,” said Stephen C. Johnson, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for welcoming Iran’s president at this time, particularly as sanctions begin to tighten and there are continuing indications that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon.”
When Brazil’s previous president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, went to Tehran in 2010 to help negotiate a deal for Iran to exchange uranium, he stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism that Ahmadinejad had used him to try to derail U.N. sanctions against Iran. It was widely interpreted as a blot on da Silva’s otherwise enviable legacy, causing the kind of friction with Washington that Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, might try to avoid.
“I’m not sure if Dilma wants to cause a big uproar at this point,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo.
Iran remains an important trading partner for Brazil, passing Russia last year as the top export market for Brazilian beef. It is also a large buyer of Brazilian sugar and soybeans.
But the relationship is asymmetrical and may be more important to Iran. In 2010, Brazil was Iran’s 10th largest trading partner, ranked by the value of goods exchanged, according to data compiled by the European Union’s directorate general for trade. But Iran ranked 27th among Brazil’s trading partners.
As for Iran’s trade with some other countries in the region, including Ecuador, it has grown considerably in a short time, but still remains relatively small.
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is Ahmadinejad’s most vociferous ally in the region, but Iran ranks 42nd on the list of Venezuela’s trading partners, accounting for less than 0.1 percent of Venezuela’s total imports and exports, according to the European Commission data.
With the international sparring over Iran’s nuclear program escalating, the visit gives Ahmadinejad the chance to glad hand with leaders from other countries who have shown sympathy and solidarity. He will attend the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua on Tuesday.
The visit also brings benefits for Ahmadinejad’s hosts, giving them the opportunity to thumb their noses at the United States in front of their own political constituents.
“You shore up your base,” Johnson said of the impact of the visit for leaders like Chavez in Venezuela. “You enhance your standing as an actor on the global stage.”
Elsa Cardozo, a professor of international studies at the Central University of Venezuela, said the Iranian president’s visit gave Chavez a chance to strike a combative pose as he embarks on a nearly yearlong re-election campaign, allowing him to “project his own style and radical message.”
“His core supporters are very radical and he doesn’t want to lose them,” Cardozo said.
Last month, President Barack Obama addressed the Venezuela-Iran relationship in written responses to questions from El Universal, a newspaper in Caracas.
“Ultimately, it is up to the Venezuelan people to determine what they gain from a relationship with a country that violates universal human rights and is isolated from much of the world,” Obama said. “Here in the Americas, we take Iranian activities, including in Venezuela, very seriously.”
Chavez responded by lambasting Obama, calling him a fraud and an embarrassment and telling him to mind his own business.
Iran appears eager to exploit seams in hemispheric relations at a time that the United States’ sway has diminished. The Organization of American States, a traditional mechanism for Washington to project its influence, was weakened last year when Brazil delayed its annual $6.5 million payment to the body. The dispute arose after the organization’s human rights commission called on Brazil to suspend construction of its Belo Monte dam complex in the Amazon River basin.
Countries in the region are also seeking new alliances to counterbalance the traditional weight of the United States. A meeting of heads of state from Latin America and the Caribbean, including Cuba, which is excluded from the OAS, was held in Caracas in December. The United States was not invited.
The regional dynamic has also shifted as other major countries, particularly China, make large investments and take an increasing role in trade.
In that context, Iran is a minor player but one that can be particularly problematic. Iran appears to have used its relations with some Latin American countries to try to circumvent international sanctions on its financial operations.
In 2008, the United States imposed sanctions aimed at shutting down a Venezuelan-based bank that it said was operating closely with an Iranian bank that helped finance Iran’s weapons development program.
That was followed by efforts to establish ties between a sanctioned Iranian bank and the Central Bank of Ecuador, according to news reports in that country and State Department cables revealed through WikiLeaks.
And in May, the United States sanctioned Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, for shipping a gasoline blending component to Iran. The sanctions barred the state oil company from doing some business with the U.S. government but it did not effect Venezuelan oil exports to the United States.
Iran’s ties in the region have often resulted in announcements of joint economic initiatives, like the establishment of development funds, construction of car or tractor factories in countries like Venezuela or Bolivia, or a port project in Nicaragua. But the projects have either failed to materialize or offered little in the way of real economic activity.
Douglas C. Farah, a senior fellow of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a national security research group in Alexandria, Va., said such financial relationships were easily manipulated.
“It gives them a chance to get into countries to buy much needed equipment and ways to get into financial systems that will allow them, unsanctioned, to move their money around the world,” Farah said.