The docking of two Iranian military ships at Rio de Janeiro’s port earlier this year grabbed headlines across the Americas. Yet, beyond the provocative naval visit, a larger but quiet Iranian encroachment is unfolding across Latin America. It is being enabled, in part, by Brazil’s new government indulging Tehran’s advances. While Brazil engages Iran largely for pragmatic commercial gain, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and others share revolutionary zeal with the Islamic Republic. After years of US sanctions and isolation, Iran is now determinedly rebuilding its political and economic ties across the region. Its operatives are laying the groundwork for greater strategic influence on America’s doorstep.
Brazil stands at the epicentre of Iran’s new opening in Latin America. Since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva regained the presidency in January, diplomatic and trade ties between both countries have blossomed. Bilateral trade now exceeds $2.2 billion annually, as Iran feasts on Brazilian corn, soybeans, beef, and sugar. Iran’s state shipping line operates offices in São Paulo to oversee its growing commercial footprint.
When Lula endorsed admitting Iran into the BRICS club recently, it culminated in a courtship that granted Tehran greater South American legitimacy. Lula also stopped short of condemning Iran’s rights abuses, unlike much of the West, and initially remained silent on Iran-backed Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel.
While not directly antagonistic toward the US interests like some of its neighbors, Brazil’s attitude creates space for Iran’s presence. Letting Iranian warships dock in Rio after planned stops in Venezuela and Nicaragua appeased Lula’s nationalist base, yet riled Washington. So too has Lula’s move to grant permission to Iran’s cultural outreach in Brazil, including establishing a new Iranian cultural centre in São Paulo. Easing visa rules may also enable more Iranian operatives to infiltrate the region.
Lula’s rhetoric comes unconcerned with how Iran could exploit these openings and appears indifferent toward its Islamist ideology. On the one hand, this reflects Brazil’s long tradition of pragmatic foreign policy and desire to be courted on the global stage; on the other, Lula may believe he can reap economic benefits from engaging Iran without endangering Brazil or Western interests. However, this permissiveness, while stopping short of full alignment, gives Iran influence in America’s southern periphery that it has long coveted.
A Tango in Tehran: Iran and Argentina
Further south, Argentina’s relationship with Iran remains complicated by unresolved grief over Tehran’s responsibility for the deadly 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre there. The attacks together killed over 100 civilians. An Argentine prosecutor later traced the atrocities to Iran’s partnership with its militant proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Yet the accused masterminds still walk free in Iran, leaving justice denied to those who lost loved ones in the attacks.
The bombings cast a permanent shadow over Argentine-Iranian relations. Yet geopolitics drives Argentina’s pragmatism in engaging Iran. It has maintained diplomatic ties and avoided joining the US pressure against Tehran. Bilateral trade in agriculture and other commodities exceeds $500 million annually.
When an Iranian Boeing 747 cargo jet linked to Iran’s Quds Force landed in Buenos Aires in June 2022, Argentina chose not to impound the aircraft despite its suspicious profile and destination. As a result, Iran’s clandestine networks could see a relatively safe regional haven in the country.
This moderation contrasts with neighboring Uruguay, which has joined vocal international condemnation of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and refusal to cooperate with the investigation in the Buenos Aires bombings. Yet Iran still maintains a diplomatic foothold in Montevideo it could exploit to spread its influence across the Southern Cone. For now, Argentina’s delicate balancing act neither fully alienates Iran nor satisfies demands for justice from its citizens still mourning loved ones lost to Tehran’s brutality.
A marriage of convenience: Iran and Venezuela
An even more strategic Iranian partnership is with Venezuela, where Caracas and Tehran have established direct passenger and cargo flights between their capitals. Bilateral trade exceeding $11 billion annually provides a vital lifeline for Venezuela’s bankrupt economy, supplying food, chemicals, medicines, and transport equipment in exchange for discounted oil. Joint ventures span petrochemicals, agriculture, housing construction, and other sectors. Venezuela also serves as a gateway for Iran’s expansion elsewhere in Latin America.
Their military bond has also grown. Iran’s defense minister visited Caracas in 2022 to inaugurate an Iranian supermarket and sign accords on intelligence sharing, weapons development, and cooperation involving Iran’s ideological army, the Revolutionary Guard. Venezuela has welcomed Iranian warships and Mahan Air flights linked to the Revolutionary Guard that, critics say, ferry advisers and materiel for Venezuela’s armed forces.
These strengthening ties are rooted in a shared revolutionary anti-imperialist ethos with the Maduro regime opposing the US power. Both regimes also face heavy American sanctions they aim to circumvent through economic and political cooperation.
For Iran, Venezuela provides a strategic foothold near the United States. Likewise, Tehran’s aid and oil expertise throw Caracas’s struggling regime an economic lifeline while enhancing its military capabilities. Their marriage of convenience has withstood political tumult in both countries.
The relationship carries risks, however. Colombia has reported that Iran’s proxy force, Hezbollah, operates a major drug trafficking and money laundering enterprise centered on Venezuela’s Margarita Island that stretches across Latin America. Joint intelligence operations and illicit financing networks support both regimes’ shadowy activities in the region, spanning weapons and narcotics trafficking. The nexus deserves vigilant monitoring, which should worry America, say diplomats in the region and opposition forces in Brazil.
Revolutionary Comrades: Iran’s ties with Nicaragua, Cuba, and Bolivia
Iran is developing similar strategic relationships with Nicaragua, Cuba, and Bolivia. Nicaragua, under strongman Daniel Ortega, is emerging as Iran’s central partner in Central America. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Managua in 2022, securing new economic investment and vowing closer political coordination. Iran’s ambassador to Nicaragua was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in 2021 for allegedly orchestrating arms deals and other activities for the Iranian regime from Managua.
In Cuba, Iran’s foreign minister visited Havana earlier in 2022 before Raisi arrived to seal accords on joint biotechnology research, energy, and mining ventures. This is built on the historical ideological kinship between the two authoritarian regimes. Closer cooperation aims to ease Cuba’s economic crisis while advancing Iran’s interests there. In Bolivia, Iran’s defense minister recently signed new security agreements during a visit to La Paz. They included expanded intelligence sharing and Bolivia obtaining drones and other military gear from Iran, provoking concern in neighboring countries, Chile and Peru.
These three leftist populist regimes share Tehran’s anti-Western worldview and appetite for undermining the US power. Their blossoming partnerships reflect this political and ideological convergence. As with Venezuela, economic interests also motivate their tilt toward their new Persian patron. But for all, defying Washington takes priority over scruples about getting in bed with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Their budding relationships allow Iran to stretch its tentacles across Latin America.
Courting Latin America’s Right: Iran in Chile, Ecuador, and Panama
Not just radical regimes have responded to Iran’s outreach. Its diplomats are also making inroads, courting more conservative governments in Chile, Ecuador, and Panama. Such overtures aim to fracture Latin America’s once-solid opposition to embracing Iran. Tehran hopes these new contacts can soften their posture toward Iran at the UN and OAS, and expand bilateral economic ties free from US interference.
Ecuador recently welcomed Iran’s foreign minister for high-level meetings in Quito. Panama negotiated a memorandum of understanding with Iran in 2022 to enhance trade and investment. It notably did not mention Iran’s role in sponsoring the foiled 2007 plot to bomb the Panama Canal, suggesting a desire for rapprochement. Chile’s former ambassador to Argentina even called for reevaluating ties with Iran, despite its use of Chilean passports by perpetrators in the Buenos Aires Jewish centre bombing.
The Israel-Hamas war has shown significant diplomatic shifts in the region with Bolivia breaking ties with Iran’s foe Israel while Colombia and Chile recalled their ambassadors.
These gestures reveal subtle shifts underway in historically pro-US countries. Their leaders appear tempted by financial gains and diplomatic relevance from exploring selective engagement with Iran’s regime, regardless of its malign ties to regional terrorism. Less pressure from Washington on Iran issues under a Biden administration trying to regain engagement after Trump’s unitaleral withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal may also shape their calculus.
This loosening alignment shows Tehran’s charm offensives have made some inroads, although most of Latin America still rejects Iran’s radical overtures.
Hezbollah havens: Iran’s proxies in Latin America
Beyond Iranian diplomats and operatives, its primary proxy force Hezbollah has established an extensive presence across Latin America over decades. Hezbollah’s networks are centered in the infamous Tri-Border Area of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil operating heavily in the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este. This remote tourist hub along the tourist hot spot of Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil and Puerto Iguazu in Argentina has since the late 80s and 90s served as an arms smuggling and money laundering centre for Hezbollah’s illegal enterprises, from counterfeiting to drug trafficking.
US officials believe that hundreds of Hezbollah members and sympathizers operate in the Tri-Border jungle, tourist, and commerce area today, with global tentacles reaching the Middle East and beyond.
Margarita Island, Venezuela’s top tourist spot and free trade zone, is another Hezbollah stronghold. Colombia’s government reports its members control a major cocaine trafficking and money laundering network there that finances Hezbollah’s activities.
Cells have been detected across Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and as far south as Chile. Recruiting among transplanted Lebanese communities has facilitated this penetration. Hezbollah leverages local sympathisers and lax jurisdictions to enable its illicit trafficking and logistics across the region.
In 2022, seventeen Hezbollah operatives were arrested on Margarita Island for alleged drug smuggling and money laundering. Other cells have been uncovered in Panama, Miami, and elsewhere running similar operations.
Hezbollah’s strategic use of Latin America as a finance and logistics hub has long been known by the US intelligence to fuel its terrorist operations in the Middle East. Lax vigilance by some Latin governments allows these networks to proliferate. Alternating left-right governments in the region have for long called for robust counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing with the US to defenses against this subversive threat.
The costs of indulging Iran in the US backyard
Despite public denials, the US is very much aware that Iran’s unchecked encroachment in Latin America poses real risks both to the region and the United States. The budding alliance with Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and other radical regimes provides economic lifelines allowing them to resist democratic reforms. Regional critics say covert collaboration on sensitive technologies enhances their authoritarian control and military capabilities and that illicit revenue streams and gates for evading sanctions also aid their survival against US pressure.
Among the population, there are still deep allegiances to the US, and they worry that deeper Iranian ties serve to legitimise otherwise outcast regimes, despite their democratic backsliding and human rights violations. Their greater geopolitical relevance is already emboldening repressions as in Nicaragua which has expelled and denied citizenship to opposition leaders, and Bolivia which has taken a hard line against political opponents, jailing its former president and regional political leaders.
Their role in enabling Iran’s strategic position close to the United States also poses dangers to the north and the collective West, whether through intelligence collection, militant influence operations, or covert contingency plans that would be activated in any conflict.
In the region as a whole, there is little action on checking Hezbollah’s sprawling presence. The short-term economic inducements of aligning with Tehran are already exposing its continued ties to international terrorism.
Close US engagement with Brazil and other pragmatic regional partners to arrest Iran’s creeping influence is happening behind the scenes, leveraging trade, investment, military ties, and other tools of suasion and support to steer them toward checking, not enabling, Iran’s ambitions. But active US leadership backing Latin America’s democratic stability, prosperity and sovereignty against Iranian incursion remains low key. Iran’s tentacles have found a new centre, reaching in influence from Brazilia to Mexico City, Havana, and La Paz, a looming threat in the US’s backyard accelerating a radical alteration of the regional geopolitical map.
Source » theweek