Iran Expert: Post-Nuclear Deal, Emboldened Islamic Republic Seeking to Expand Global Reach, Build Anti-US Axis in Latin America (INTERVIEW)
by Barney Breen-Portnoy
Last year’s nuclear deal with world powers has emboldened Iran as it seeks to expand its global reach and build an anti-America axis in the Western hemisphere, an expert on the Islamic Republic told The Algemeiner on Tuesday.
“The Iranians are really thinking big again,” Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington, DC-based conservative think tank the American Foreign Policy Council, said. “They’ve always had a global vision, but for a long time they didn’t have the resources to capitalize on it. Now, as sanctions begin to fall away, their global vision is back front and center. They’re starting to think spatially, in terms of where they fit globally — in Europe, in Asia and in Latin America.”
Iran’s relationship with Latin America, Berman said, began in the 1980s and its first significant act there was to help the Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah establish roots in the lawless tri-border area where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet. This, Berman noted, resulted in Hezbollah developing the capability to carry out attacks in the Western hemisphere — which it did twice in Argentina in the first half of the 1990s.
“An interesting historical footnote that most people forget is that up until al-Qaeda stole the mantle on 9/11, the Iranians were responsible for the single most devastating attack in the hemisphere,” Berman said, referring to the April 1994 suicide van-bombing at the Jewish center — the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) — building in Buenos Aires, which left 85 dead and scores wounded.
More recently, Berman said, Iran’s ties with Latin America were based on the personal affinity that the late former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held for each other.
“In 1999, we saw Chavez rise from relative obscurity to become the leftist leader of Venezuela,” Berman said. “He took Simón Bolívar’s idea of a Latin America free of outside influence and said Venezuela didn’t want to be dominated by the United States anymore. To achieve that, Latin American states needed powerful external allies who were anti-American also. So Chavez spent a good half decade looking for such partners, and reached out to Iran. But he wasn’t really reciprocated institutionally until Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. Then you had a meeting of the minds between the two leaders. Not only did they get along very well, but they agreed about where they wanted their countries to go, and you saw a very rapid expansion of Iran’s ties with Venezuela.”
The most important aspect of this relationship, Berman said, was the role Venezuela played in helping Tehran establish ties with other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia and Ecuador.
“Chavez vouched for Iran, saying, ‘This is our anti-American strategic partner,'” Berman said.
As part of its outreach program in Latin America, Iran joined the Chavez-founded Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) intergovernmental organization as an observer state.
“Through that forum, Iran has been able to have conversations with countries it otherwise would not have the ability to talk to,” Berman said.
Despite the departure of both Chavez and Ahmadinejad from the scene in 2013, Berman said, Iranian activities in Latin American have only grown in recent years.
“The Iranian regime, from the time Hassan Rouhani took power three years ago, even before the nuclear deal, made very clear that it wanted to invest in and expand its relationship with Latin America,” Berman said. “So this wasn’t just an Ahmadinejad project.”
A vast majority of the hundreds of trade and economic deals Iran has signed with Latin American countries “haven’t amounted to anything, because the Iranians didn’t have any money,” Berman said. “But now, for the first time, Iran has the ability to put its money where its mouth is. Its economy is stabilizing, and it can now capitalize on all those promises it made to solidify its position in the region — and make those trade deals real.”
Iran, Berman stated, is taking a long-term approach to its relationship with Latin America.
“I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Latin America,” he said. “And what you discover if you spend time down there is that it is like the third inning of a baseball game. Iran has all sorts of strategic interests in the region. Ten years ago, it was worried about Western sanctions; it wanted trade partners that would help it blunt the effect of sanctions. Now the Iranians are out of the box, and they’re looking for where they can increase their legitimacy and where they can increase their cooperation.”
Last month, as reported in The Algemeiner, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited six Latin American countries — Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela.
“Zarif went on this junket in Latin American and he said it was all about trade, but each of the countries he visited is an economic basket case,” Berman said. “These are not trade partners; rather, they are strategic allies if you’re trying to build an anti-American axis. And that dovetails really well with what Iran is thinking globally. There hasn’t been a reset in Iranian thinking about the United States; they still view America as their main adversary. But what they now have are more resources and international breathing room to build an alliance against the US.”
Regarding America’s reaction to Iran’s recent activities in the Western hemisphere, Berman said the Obama administration “hasn’t done anything.”
“It’s very inconvenient to say we have to have a détente with a country that is doing all sorts of bad stuff in our neighborhood,” Berman said. “And the other part is that the Iran nuclear deal complicates another venture of the Obama administration, which is the reset with Cuba.”
Further elaborating, Berman said, “The Obama administration doesn’t have a Latin America strategy at all. All it cares about is resetting relations with Cuba. So it has scoped down what it is interested about in Latin America. There is really no appetite in the White House to start talking about what the Iranians are doing there.”
Turning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) itself, Berman said, “From Day One, I have not been a fan of the nuclear deal; it’s very dangerous. I think if you are only concerned about process, like the arms controllers in DC are, you can say the Iranians for now are more or less compliant with the nuclear deal and its terms. And while that is tactically correct, it is strategically wrong. It is tactically correct, because the Iranians are slowing things down and dismantling certain parts of their nuclear program. But the way the nuclear deal is shaped doesn’t fundamentally derail Iran’s quest for the bomb; it just slows it down.”
Furthermore, Berman noted, “There are all sorts of things the US and the other P5+1 countries are mandated to do in support of Iran’s nuclear program that will make it harder to roll back later. And in the meantime, the cost of this has been really high — it fundamentally unraveled the global sanctions regime against Iran.”
Berman went on to say, “The Obama administration talks a lot about how the deal is tactical — that it is not intended to address Iran’s terrorism or human-rights violations, just strictly to deal with its nuclear program. But the benefits that are conferred to Iran as a result are strategic and transformative. The sanctions regime is a thing of the past; the era of macro sanctions is over. Iran is getting infused with multiple, billion-dollar trade and military deals, and its global ambitions are expanding. The nuclear deal is a gateway drug for Iran to do all sorts of things. Yes, it slows down Iran’s nuclear program, but at the expense of empowering everything else.”