This is a critical moment to examine Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere and to consider what can be done to limit its influence. Iran’s interest in Latin America has three primary motivations: (1) cultivating stronger diplomatic ties with nations that oppose the United States, (2) finding economic assistance amidst sanctions, and (3) establishing strategic capabilities for terrorist and asymmetric operations.
Dynamics at play today could significantly impact Iran’s ability, both positively and negatively, to succeed in any of these areas. If these dynamics are properly understood and exploited, they represent a unique opportunity to undo the nexus of political, economic, criminal, and terrorist ties that span from Tehran and Beirut to Caracas and the Tri-Border Area of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.
Iran’s efforts to secure political backing and economic assistance from Latin America have met with mixed results over the last decade. Now, with the passing from the stage of the two personalities that, over the course of the last decade, most drove the Iranian-Latin American relationship—Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose second and final term just ended, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, recently deceased—they have arrived at a natural inflection point.
Regional dynamics are currently in the favor of the United States. Chavez’s death weakened the Venezuelan government and, by extension, its anti-American sympathizers in Havana, La Paz, and Quito, who form Iran’s natural constituency in the region. But their weak economic performance will prove an even more destabilizing force for these regimes, and limit their ability to assist Iran, presenting an opportunity for the United States.
At the same time, Iran’s own political and economic isolation, as a result of sanctions, will drive it ever more desperately to seek friends and money wherever it can. In this way, we should understand Iran’s interest in strengthening diplomatic and economic ties with Latin America as perhaps a sign of the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to isolate it. That should be a reason to only further tighten sanctions on doing business with Iran and to ensure that it does not find an economic lifeline in the Western Hemisphere.