Iran continues to carefully expand its network in Latin America; what are we doing about it? Publicly, very little. A region rich with strategic natural resources, poverty, and anti-American governments, the Iranian mullahs see opportunities to exploit and they have wasted no time in doing so. Working closely with countries of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, Iran has inked and funded billions of dollars worth of enterprises that are difficult to track by the United States.
The ideological head of the Bolivarian movement is state sponsor of terrorism Cuba. Some of its members include Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Syria has observer status. And there are numerous Caribbean and Central American countries that support it such as Nicaragua and Dominica. Its primary aim is to create alternative – hence the name – or parallel diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military organizations to destabilize U.S. interests in the Americas. Because it would make normalizing relations with the U.S. more difficult, Cuba takes a back seat in managing the organization, preferring to use Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as the public face and economic engine of this quixotic group.
Although Iran has had a presence in the Americas for some time now, especially through its proxies such as Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, regime leaders usually received a cold shoulder from Latin America and Caribbean leaders. Skipping over a lot of history (there are other posts on this site that document some of it), suffice it to say that the Bolivarian Alternative – or Alliance, since they changed the name in 2009 – provided Iranian leaders a more formal way to engage in the region. Cuba and Venezuela were very eager to accommodate and the relationships have expanded ever since.
Bolivia penned one if its first trade and cultural exchange agreements with Iran in 2007. The relations have grown closer ever since. Yesterday, Bolivia’s President announced yet another “cooperation” agreement with the Iranians. Iran wants access to uranium, lithium, and many other strategic natural resources Bolivia has to offer. In return, Iran will throw in billions of dollars in foreign assistance and, as reported in UPI, a nuclear cooperation agreement to help Bolivia build its first civilian nuclear reactor. They will also open a bank that, no doubt, will be used to launder money – to evade U.S. sanctions – as well as fund nefarious activities in the Western Hemisphere and around the world. And there are reports that it will also sell military equipment to the Bolivian Air Force.
There is plenty the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress can and should be doing to block Iranian adventurism in the Americas. At a minimum, making robust use of terrorist watch lists maintained by the Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) would be a good place to start. If Latin American governments insist on allowing Iranian banks to be operated in the region, then Latin American government and bank officials should be investigated and, if warranted, placed on the Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) lists, denied access to our financial system and not granted visas for travel to the United States. But this is not enough.
Iranian meddling in the Americas goes beyond financial. More serious action is needed by the U.S. and our allies in the region – paying more attention to the problem would be a good place to start. Finally for the few U.S. companies investing in these countries, they should be very careful. Not only does the region have significant corruption issues, with increased Iranian investments comes more financial risks and potential for unwitting terrorist financing.
Follow this link for the story on Iran’s latest deal with Bolivia.