Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in Managua in a few hours, the second leg of a trip around Latin America. It is his fifth time in the region, and given U.S.-Iranian tensions the trip has fueled a lot of worried tea-leaf reading. On Monday, his visit to his ideological pal Hugo Chavez in Venezuela generated headlines. After today's stop in Nicaragua, he goes on to Cuba, Ecuador and Guatemala.
Analysts I respect, though, say concerns over Iran's influence in the region may be ill-founded.
On previous trips, Ahmadinejad made big promises that Iran never fulfilled. Where is the oil refinery he promised to build in Ecuador? And the $350 million deepwater port for Nicaragua? Yes, Iran has opened six embassies in Latin America since 2005. But if tensions grow with Iran, are its supporters in Latin America able to offer anything except rhetorical support?
Here’s are excerpts from what I’ve seen over the past several days:
Michael Shifter, Inter-American Dialogue: “It is worth stressing that Brazil, the region's economic and political powerhouse, is not part of Ahmadinejad's itinerary this time, as it was in 2009. That is a setback for Iran, which would clearly like to develop stronger geopolitical ties with Brazil beyond the existing economic relationship. If Hezbollah and Iran are heavily engaged in illicit activities in the region, that would pose a threat to the major countries, which have made economic and political progress that they will want to avoid putting at risk. Both Iran and Venezuela, Iran's advocate in region, are today considerably weakened in their respective regions.”
Ray Walser and James Phillips, Heritage Foundation: “Ahmadinejad hopes that his Latin “tyrant’s tour” will demonstrate that Iran is not isolated and that he is a respected leader of the anti-American bloc. . . . What does Iran seek in the Americas? It desires diplomatic cover and international support against the U.S. and Western Europe, which are imposing increasingly tougher sanctions. Iran wants commercial and economic outlets for its limited range of exports and sources of secure supply for its domestic market. Iran also desires a set of friends who are willing to buck the U.S. …”
Geoff Thale, Washington Office on Latin America: 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. . . . (T)he 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.”