Electoral rhetoric in the GOP presidential nomination campaign has distracted public attention from Iran’s increasing presence in the Americas. Even as the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council resumed engagement with Iran last week, ties between the theocracy and leftist authoritarian governments in Latin America have remained largely unaddressed.
Frustrated with Iran’s opaque and often disingenuous activities, the international community abandoned negotiations over its allegedly non-military nuclear program over a year ago. Recently, at Iran’s request, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) plus Germany issued a statement requesting that Iran allow international inspectors unfettered access to its nuclear facilities to ascertain their ostensibly peaceful nature.
Two months ago, news of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Latin America, and his meetings with the heads of government of Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua demonstrated Iran’s commitment to further its ties in the region. At the time, the media proposed various strategic reasons for Iran’s visit.
As an article in the Economist noted back in January, Ahmadinejad may have been using the regional tour as an opportunity to demonstrate Iran is not a complete pariah, and still has some (anti-American friends), even if they are all (becoming) authoritarian outcasts. Beyond diplomacy however, it is likely that Iran is seeking Latin American trade partners to mollify the onslaught of economic sanctions placed on Iran by the United States and Canada, Europe and Asia.
Behind these diplomatic and economic rationales however, lie deeper geopolitical considerations. While many will argue that Latin America is Nobody’s Back Yard, its proximity to the United States should continue to raise national security concerns, even if the relationship should be framed in less patronizing terms.
Last year, a bizarre plot involving certain members of the Iranian government and a Mexican drug cartel sought to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador. Iranian officials denied any involvement. While this incident could have initiated a dialogue about Iranian influence in the region – clandestine or otherwise – the discourse quickly degenerated into a ramble about the threat of “narco-terrorists,” and the need to secure the border: that is, to impose draconian anti-immigration laws while citing national security interests as an excuse.
The U.S. seems to engage in a strange exercise in futility, trying to distance itself from its southern neighbors through immigration policies that ignore the geographic, trade, and cultural proximity. Given that Iran’s deepening relationship with Latin American does not fit this simplistic isolationist strategy, political rhetoric remains superficial.
During the GOP debate in Florida on January 26, a Miami resident specifically broached the issue with the candidates, and asked about their strategy to address Iranian influence in the region. Ron Paul answered he would support free markets, but did not outline a specific strategy to address Iranian influence. The rest of the candidates took the opportunity to expound on the Administration’s failures, without ever answering the question.
Not much has changed. Currently, the rhetoric focuses on completely unjustified speculations about how the outcome of the 2012 U.S. presidential election will determine Iran’s success in obtaining a nuclear bomb.
These allegations are not only unfounded, but also unabashedly political. Even if the U.S. president could (or should) single handedly deprive Iran of the weapon, the Administration’s strategy and those proposed by the GOP candidates are virtually the same, making the outcome of the election irrelevant in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Both the renewal of U.N. relations with the Persian state, and worrisome news that Iran intends to build military drones in Venezuela will provide both an opportunity and the impetus to rethink American security relations with Latin America. While we may see a shift towards a strategy of engagement, don’t be surprised if GOP candidates solve/dismiss the matter by encouraging border states to expand their anti-immigrant legislation to include deportation of illegal Venezuelan drones.