Iran’s Latin America strategy and the challenges to the balance of power

Penny L. Watson


The Islamic Republic of Iran has been involved in Latin America for a few decades. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran only had relations with four Latin American countries: Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Chile. After the 1979 revolution. Mexico and Chile broke all relations with Iran and closed their diplomatic missions in Tehran, and relations with Brazil and Argentina became minimal. From the late 1990s Iran began increasing friendly relations with several left-wing governments in Latin America. These ties deepened with the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). The Rouhani government spent the first two years, from August 2013 to July 2015, improving relations with the West during the negotiations on its nuclear programme. According to Taghizadeh (2016), since 2015 ‘unexpectedly the Rouhani government is doing the exact same thing as Ahmadinejad’s government, that is developing close relationships with left-wing countries in Latin America’.

There are two perspectives on why there has been a surge in Iran’s activities in Latin America in the 21st century. The first argues that Iran’s primary interest in Latin America is to gain economic benefits (Farah 2011; Lofaso

2016) . Accordingly, Iran’s activities are at most a nuisance to the United States, and its political relations with Latin American leftist regimes are fragile expressions of Third World solidarity.

The second perspective, which is defended in this chapter, argues that Iran’s activities in Latin America are part of its grand strategy (Watson

2017) . Iran’s involvement in Latin America is two-fold. First, Latin America is rich in the mineral resources that are necessary to Iran’s nuclear programme. Second, Latin America provides a locale from which Iran can challenge and provide deterrence to a possible US military option against Iran.

Latin America therefore functions as a venue through which Iran can counter the United States. Iran’s alliances with Latin American regimes serve two functions: to secure support from countries in close proximity to the United States; and provide support for Iran’s nuclear programme. The post?revolutionary regime in Iran has been pursuing a nuclear programme for three main reasons. First, the regime wishes to acquire nuclear weapons because it perceives that there is a threat to its security. Second, the fundamentalist regime would greatly enhance its legitimacy if it were able to acquire nuclear weapons. Third, the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) actively supports the development of nuclear weapons for political and ideological purposes (Watson 2020).

Iran’s post-revolutionary regime perceives the United States as a threat and is constantly wary that the United States might invade and overthrow the current regime. The United States has felt justified in violating the sovereignty and replacing the leaders of numerous countries in the Middle East and North Africa—Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name but a few. Furthermore, the United States has gone into Iran before and replaced its leader with one that was more pro-America. In 1953 the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6) orchestrated a coup overthrowing the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and putting back on the throne Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi as an autocratic monarch (Gasiorowski and Byrne 2004).

Possession of nuclear weapons would provide Iran with the enhanced ability to confront these challenges (Watson 2017). For some, the Iranian nuclear weapons programme has been too extensive and valuable to stop. Iran has a hefty investment into it. Iran’s Amad programme, that aimed to develop and produce functioning nuclear weapons, was also partially designed to have its own independent uranium mining, conversion and enrichment resources (Albright el al. 2018a). Part of the plan included both production costs and costs to purchase weapons-grade uranium from other countries (ibid.). Iran has focused on preserving and continuing the programme but has cloaked its activities under a civilian guise (ibid.).

This chapter will examine Iran’s close relationships with anti-US leftist regimes in Latin America and attempt to explain why there was a surge in Iran’s activities in Latin America, why it occurred when it did, which countries have played the biggest role, what are the political and economic impact of these relations, and what is the Latin American perspective.

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