By Geoff Thale, WOLA’s Program Director
This week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is visiting Latin America, starting this past Sunday in Venezuela and going on to Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador, and possibly Guatemala. Why is the trip taking place, and what does it portend? Should U.S. officials be concerned?
Iran is facing increased international isolation, and President Ahmadinejad is using this trip to Latin America to look for support against U.S. and European sanctions and pressures. Ahmadinejad also faces political problems at home, as sanctions exacerbate internal tensions. He hopes the trip will help him at home, by showing that he has international allies, some of them in the backyard of the United States.
As he visits the region, Ahmadinejad will encounter some rhetorical support—he will certainly find governments and social sectors that oppose U.S. sanctions and the U.S. approach to Iran. But the trip is unlikely to do much to advance Iran’s strategic interests. Latin American opinion is shaped more by the history of U.S. sanctions and U.S. intervention in Latin America than by sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism or by support for Iranian offensive weapons ambitions.
Traditionally, most Latin American countries followed the U.S. lead in the international arena, for instance in the United Nations. It’s still the case that much of the region has an international outlook similar to that of the United States, even as some countries have moved away from lockstep support for U.S. international policies toward more independent positions.
As we look at the Ahmadinejad visit, we shouldn’t be confused—the fact that some Latin American countries disagree with the United States about how to approach Iran doesn’t mean that these countries are embracing a strategic alliance with Iran. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may love flamboyant gestures, and be delighted to poke a rhetorical stick in the eye of the United States, but Venezuela is not about to adopt or spread Shiite fundamentalism, and Venezuela—much less Cuba, Ecuador or Nicaragua—is not in any serious position to advance Iranian strategic military interests, nor to serve as a rearguard from which to harass the United States.
U.S. policy makers may find Latin American governments skeptical about sanctions and about aggressive anti-Iranian policies. That will be a challenge for U.S. diplomacy. But the fact that Latin American governments might disagree with our approach on Iran does not somehow convert them into supporters of Sharia law in the Western Hemisphere.
Some of the commentary about the Ahmadinejad trip seems like replays of Cold War era views of Latin America. Commentators fear that Ahmadinejad’s trip will build a pro-Iranian, anti-American bloc in Latin America, and they want to align U.S. relations with Latin American countries based on what position they take on Iran. That’s a big mistake. It overestimates the nature and the extent of support for Iran in Latin America, and it misinterprets the motives of Latin American countries. It would be a big mistake to return to the black or white, friends or enemies view of Latin America that we had during the Cold War. This view doesn’t reflect reality, and it’s not in the best interest of the United States.
Photo (c) 2011 Parmida Rahimi