The acceptance of Iran into the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, south Africa)[1] during the organization’s August 22-24 2023 summit Johannesburg South Africa highlights Iran’s accelerated reengagement with the international community,[2] and with it, renewed opportunities for it not only to normalize its political and economic engagements, but to more completely circumvent sanctions and pursue activities to the detriment of the United States. In Latin America, Iran’s inclusion in the BRICS, will give it accelerated opportunities for political and economic interactions with current member Brazil, and future member Argentina.[3] Iran’s reengagement with the region has actually, however, been underway since 2020, with limited attention by Washington or its neighbors.

Iran’s activities in Latin America received substantial attention in Washington during the first decade of the 21st century, as a US attention focused on the Global War Against Terrorism, while Iran’s then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pursued high profile[4] engagements with anti US populist leaders in the region, particularly those in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. In 2010, Iran also established a propaganda outlet in the region, HispanTV,[5] which by 2021 was operating in 17 countries in the region.[6] At the height of attention to Iran’s activities in the region in 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act,”[7] obliging the US State Department to formulate a strategy and report regularly to Congress on its response to Iranian activities.

During the Presidency of Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rouhani, Iran maintained a much lower profile in Latin America,[8] reflecting both Rouhani’s less confrontational style and Iran’s work to escape sanctions through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with the United States and five other nations on nuclear proliferation.[9] Rouhani did, however, visit Venezuela and Cuba in September 2016[10] in conjunction with a summit of the Non-Aligned movement in Margarita Island, Venezuela.[11]

The current Iranian Presidency of Ebrahim Raisi has coincided with increased Iran-US tensions and the 2018[12] Trump Administration withdraw from the JCPOA, together leading Iran to a more aggressive international posture, including in the US’ own near abroad. As the Raisi Administration has looked to Latin America, among other regions, in pursuit of expanded international engagement and the construction of alliances against the US, it has found a new generation of anti-US populist regimes who have consolidated their power and who themselves are looking for new partners beyond the region to offset US influence. More broadly, the Raisi regime’s initiatives to expand its partners in Latin America also finds fertile soil in an unprecedented number of new governments on both the right and left unwilling to heed Washington’s concerns regarding their conduct of domestic, or foreign affairs.

Iran’s reengagement with Latin America, as a subset of its global reengagement, is also occurring in the context of a Washington DC, paralyzed by domestic divisions,[13] and and moving away from its prior attention to global terrorism, particularly following its withdrawal from Afghanistan,[14] to focus on the rise of China[15] and Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.[16] The challenge posed by Iran’s re-engagement with the Western Hemisphere is augmented by China, which has economically strengthened Iran through its own engagement,[17] helped Iran to manage its distracting, longstanding rivalry with Sauda Arabia.[18] China encouraged Latin America and the Caribbean governments to feel the economic and political freedom to collaborate with Iran[19] without worrying about the United States.

The present work looks at Iran’s re engagement in the region, including activities of proxy groups such as Hezbollah, and the challenges they present in the region. It argues that the potential reach and impacts Iran may be able to achieve in its new engagement, and the associated risks, go far beyond its previous efforts during the era of the populist-leftist “pink tide” regimes,[20] due to synergies between Iran’s initiative, the consolidation of power by anti-US governments in the region, and the unprecedented political shifts in the region away from cooperation with or deference to the United States.
General Trends of Iran’s Re-Engagement in the Americas

From the time of leftist populist President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has been the Center of Gravity for Iran’s activities in the Americas, as well as the launch point for its current reengagement with the region. It has also served as a de facto template for the activities that Iran pursues with other countries.

Iran’s reengagement generally began in 2020 with its assistance to Venezuela ‘s oil sector at a time in which the Maduro regime in crisis for inability to produce. Iran also extended arms sales and co-development in Venezuela, as well as agricultural cooperation. In 2022 Iran also began to renew and extend its ties with other anti-US states, including Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba. The symbol of this re-engagement was the 2023 trip by Ebrahim Raisi, his Defense Minister, and other ministers to Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, followed shortly thereafter by receipt of a Bolivian government delegation to Iran, where it signed a defense cooperation agreement with its Iranian hosts.

The visit of the Iranian worship Makran, and it’s escort the Dena to Rio de Janeiro[21] highlights Iran’s intention to expand its re-engagement beyond its narrow group of anti US actors. Brazil’s acquiescence to Iran’s limited but symbolically important military gesture was enabled by the return of Lula in Brazil, as well as the arrival in power elsewhere in the region of an unprecedented number of governments willing to pursue a course challenging to the U.S. in political and security affairs.

In terms of commerce, according to the International Monetary Fund, in 2022, Latin America exported $4.9 billion in goods to Iran,[22] principally to Brazil, by contrast to $186 billion in goods and services Latin America exported to the People’s Republic of China.[23] In a similar fashion, Latin America imported only $173 million in goods and services from Iran in 2022,[24] by contrast to $310 billion of goods the region imported from the PRC that year (almost 2000 times as much).[25]

Although as noted previously, the style of Iran’s engagement with the region has varied significantly[26] from the presidencies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hussan Rouhani, to Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s broad strategic goals have remained relatively consistent. These include leveraging its relationships in Latin America to evade sanctions, and to escape from international isolation, as well as demonstrating to domestic audiences its ability to do so, while also developing asymmetric military options within the region that could be potentially used against the United States.

The history of Iran’s engagement in Latin America shows its continual willingness to take aggressive actions against US equities, limited by relative awkwardness in doing so. Examples include Iran’s role in running agents who planned the 2007 attack against the John F Kennedy airport in New York,[27] which was ultimately exposed and foiled.[28] They also include Iran’s receptivity to proposals in 2012[29] from a group of computer science professors and students at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) to mount attacks on DoD targets, exposed not by intelligence agencies, but by Univision,[30] who had become aware of the plot and convinced one of the students to tape the negotiations. In 2011, Iranian Qods force operative Gholam Shakuri[31] also sought to recruit who he thought were members of feared Mexican narcotrafficking cartel Los Zetas, to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington DC,[32] an operation which turned out to be a DEA sting operation.[33]

Iran’s primary instruments for engaging in Latin America continue to be a combination of state tools and proxy groups. These include developing human networks, both directly through its Qods forces, and indirectly through the money raising and other activities[34] in the region of its proxy Hezbollah.[35] Iran has also worked through Islamic centers in the region, once estimated to number at least 80, to gain intelligence and recruit members, complementing these in-region activities with paid trips by interested youths to religious indoctrination and training programs in Iran itself.[36] Iran’s indoctrination for interested youth included a program of approximately two months in the Iranian city of Qom.[37] A key sponsor of such trips was the organization Iran Ornate, run by Mosheen Rabbani,[38] tied to Hezbollah terrorist attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, and against the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, AMIA, in 1994. Rabbani was also believed to have played a key role in running Hezbollah agents in the region.

Iran has also collaborated in the arena of arms, the petrochemical industry, and more recently, agriculture, as discussed in mor detail in subsequent sections. Iran’s superficially commercial partnerships have empirically been in part a vehicle for hiding its weapons co-development activities, and for evading sanctions.
Iran-Venezuela Engagement

Iran’s partnership with Venezuela, the hub of its engagement in the region, began with a coincidence in the strategic interests[39] between the leftist populist movement of Hugo Chavez, and the efforts of then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to escape from sanctions, to pursue missile development and other military programs, to demonstrate to domestic audiences in each country that its regime was not internationally isolated, and to develop asymmetric military and other options against the United States.

During the Hugo Chavez era the Iran-Venezuela relationship expanded through a large number of projects and cooperative agreements and more than 8 high-level visits between the Venezuelan leader and his Iranian counterpart.[40] By the end of the Chavez area, over 80 Iranian companies were operating in Venezuela,[41] over 60 joint ventures,[42] and over 270 memorandums of understanding define the relationship.[43] To varying degrees, these projects and agreements were a vehicle for “mutual aid.” In some cases. Iran also acted as a broker with its other partners in the Middle East on agricultural and other details. Sanctions-evading activities included the Iran-Venezuela Binational Bank, established in 2010.[44] The Iran-Venezuela bank was sanctioned by the US treasury department’s office of foreign assets and control in 2018.[45]

Early Iranian-Venezuela arms collaboration included work with Venezuela’s state defense industry firm CAVIM, probably in the development of missile components and drones.[46] As an early indicator of the military content of Iran-Venezuela collaboration, in 2008, Turkish authorities intercepted 22 shipping containers bound from Iran to Venezuela with materials that could be used for making sophisticated explosive devices. Iran’s supply of drones to Venezuela was confirmed as early as 2012.[47]

During the early period, as noted by a 2010 US Department of Defense report,[48] Venezuela also became the point of entry in the region for Iranian[49] Qods forces, including regular flights by the Venezuelan airline Conviasa from Iran through Syria to Caracas, resumed in July 2023.[50] In recent years, the nominally Venezuelan airline EMTRASUR, appears to have become a vehicle for surreptitious travel by Qods operatives,[51] and other senior Iranian operatives through the region. As early as 2013, Iranian and Venezuelan officials were also reportedly engaged in intelligence cooperation.[52]

The Chavista regime’s providing of illegitimate passports, highlighted by former de jure Venezuelan president Juan Guaido,[53] also arguably facilitated the entrance of Iranians in the region. As the principal point of entry for Iranian personnel, Venezuela also became a key hub for Iran support to Islamic cultural centers throughout the region,[54] which among other purposes were used to recruit youth in the region interested in Islam, as well as engage in outreach, propaganda,[55] and other activities in the region. One element of Iran’s June 2023 agreement with Venezuela was to establish additional centers.[56]

From at least 2019 and probably before, Tarek al-Aissami played a key role in the relationship with Iran,[57] along with other Chavista leaders such as Nestor Reverol and Hugo Carvajal.[58] His role included petroleum cooperation,[59] consistent with his position at the head of PdVSA, but also reportedly included other areas such as the activities of Hezbollah in the country.[60]

Iran’s re engagement with Venezuela began to take off in 2020 as the U.S. [61] “maximum pressure” campaign against the Maduro regime deepened its economic and political challenges. Collapsing Venezuelan oil production, due to both sanctions and significant mismanagement of the sector by Maduro, had caused severe gasoline shortages[62] which paralyzed virtually all economic activities in the country dependent on transportation and electric generators to supplement the nation’s collapsed power grid,[63] deepening the regime’s crisis.

In this moment of crisis, Iran played a key role in repairing the regime’s refineries and providing gasoline to restore minimal functionality to the Venezuelan economy, easing the political pressures on Maduro. This assistance visibly begun with a series of flights in April 2020 by Iran’s Mahan airlines,[64] bringing experts, components, and material needed to repair Venezuela’s Cardon Refinery.[65] In May 2020, Iran also delivered the first five tankers shipments of badly needed gasoline to the country, 1.53 million barrels in total, valued at $43 million.[66]

This was followed in subsequent years by multiple tanker deliveries of other Iranian petroleum[67] products to be mixed with Venezuelan heavy crude to make it marketable, and/or processed by Venezuelan refineries.[68] Analysts believe that Venezuelan gold, principally acquired from illegal mining operations in the Orinoco region of the country, was used to pay for Iran’s services and products.[69] By 2022, Iran had also executed a $116 million agreement to repair the El Palito refinery,[70] and had committed to repair the much larger Paraguaná refinery complex.[71]

In the military domain, Iran expanded and broadened its previous collaboration with Venezuela on drones and other programs. In 2021, delivered of Zolfaghar class attack boats,[72] Nasr-1 anti-ship missiles,[73] and more drones, each of which were subsequently displayed in Venezuelan military parades.[74] Iran-supplied armed drones were used by the Venezuelan military in attacks against FARC dissidents in Apure state in May 2022.[75]

In June 2021, the Iranian warship Makran and its escort ship the Sahand[76] made a high-profile transit from Africa toward Venezuela[77] carrying seven military boats and other equipment believed to be destined for Venezuela’s armed forces,[78] although in the face of Western pressure, the ships reversed course before reaching Venezuela.[79]

With respect to collaboration in training and exercises, starting in approximately 2020, Iran also began instructing Venezuelan naval special forces in its facility in Bandar Abbas, including a program instructing in the conduct of underwater demolitions. In July 2022, Iran participated, along with Russia, China and other states of concern, the “Sniper Frontier” military exercise hosted by Venezuela.[80]

As Iran continued to extend cooperation with Venezuela across a range of areas, in June 2022, it signed a 20-year[81] multi domain cooperation agreement covering science and technology, agriculture, communications and tourism,[82] among other areas.

Consistent with the new agreement, in September 2022, Venezuela transferred 2.5 million hectares (4,000 square miles)[83] of land to Iran, ostensibly to be used for agricultural projects, including growing corn and soybeans,[84] although Western analysts have expressed concern that the large amount of land and its relatively remote location could also facilitate its use for military or terrorist training[85] and other activities of concern.[86]

In February 2023, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian traveled to Caracas, as well as Managua and Havana ,[87] in what later became clear was coordination and paving the way for a fruitful agenda for the subsequent June 2023 State Visit to each of the three countries by President Ebrahim Raisi, accompanied by his Defense Minister Mohammad Ashtiani, and other ministerial level personnel. The Raisi state visit to Venezuela produced an additional 12 agreements in a range of areas from “academic exchanges”[88] to the donation of cars[89] to the purchase of Venezuelan cattle.[90]
Iran-Nicaragua Engagement

Iran s engagement with Nicaragua has followed the template established by its activities with Venezuela, although initially Iran’s initiatives in Nicaragua were more limited and met with resistance. In 2007, for example, following a meeting between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega,[91] recently returned to power, and the signing of a series of commercial agreements,[92] Iran sent a survey team to Monkey Point, a remote area on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, seeking to evaluate the area for construction of a $350 million port.[93] The team was, however, aggressively confronted by locals,[94] which forced it to leave without completing its business. Nor did other agreements between the two nations subsequently bear substantial fruit. For the next 15 years, the two countries had only limited high-level interactions.

Nicaragua’s reengagement with Iran began substantially in 2022, following that of Venezuela. Iranian Mosheen Rezaei,[95] implicated in the 1994 terrorist attack against the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aries, AMIA,[96] was present at the inauguration.[97] In May 2022, Iran’s petroleum minister, Javad Owji, travel to Nicaragua, discussing collaboration on a refinery, as well as agricultural projects,[98] paralleling Iran engagement in Venezuela. Owji also met with the Nicaraguan parliament, in which opposition parties had been completely eliminated.[99]

The February 2023 stop in Managua by Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Ahdollahian,[100] paved the way for the June 2023 State Visit by Ebrahim Raisi,[101] accompanied by Defense Minister Ashtiani and other ministers. As with Iran-Venezuela interactions, Iran and Nicaragua reportedly also discussed defense cooperation.[102] In the commercial domain, as in Venezuela, where Chavista loyalists were positioned to profit from agricultural and other cooperation agreements with Iran, Daniel Ortega’s son Laureano, point man for international commercial engagements, played a key role in discussions of renewed agricultural,[103] petrochemical, and other cooperation.
Iran-Cuba Engagement

Iran s engagement with Cuba, in terms of commercial projects and other over cooperation, has been more limited than that with Venezuela. Overall trade between the two in 2022 was a mere $3 million,[104] almost entirely Iranian exports to Cuba. Nonetheless, then Iranian president Hassan Rouhani visited Cuba in September 2016 to “reaffirm friendship”[105] between the two governments, and the two authoritarian regimes have engaged on strategic issues on other occasions.

In 2021, during the later stages of the pandemic, Iran and Cuba, each with immature biotechnology industry, collaborated to develop a vaccine against COVID-19.[106] As with Venezuela and Nicaragua, in February 2023, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian traveled to Havana,[107] followed in June 2023, by a State Visit by President Raisi and a delegation that included Iran’s Defense Minister Ashtiani. During the Raisi stop in Cuba,[108] the two countries signed six agreements[109] in cooperation in the political domain,[110] on “digital”[111] issues, customs, electricity, biotech, and mining.[112] Although relations have historically been warm, reflecting shared enmity with the United States,[113] the meeting was a departure from previously more low-level Cuban engagement. Cuba’s willingness to engage with Iran in such a broad fashion in the commercial domain arguably parallels its signing of economic cooperation agreements with Russia,[114] China,[115] and others, illustrating the desperation of the regime to attract resources that can help keep the economy viable.
Iran-Bolivia Engagement

As with Nicaragua and to an extent Cuba, Iran’s engagement with Bolivia has followed its template established by Venezuela. Previous leftist populist Bolivian leader Evo Morales met multiple times with his then Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, including Bolivia purchasing military aircraft parts from Iran in 2007,[116] and signing a strategic cooperation agreement in 2008.[117] In October 2010, the two leaders played a symbolic game of soccer,[118] seeking to represent the personal friendship that they were cultivating. The personal nature of the tie between the two leaders, and Morales’ perception of a shared project between the two nations may have contributed to his initiative much later, in October 2020, after having been ousted from power for an attempt to rig the nation’s 2019 national election.[119] In that occasion, the former President flew to Caracas from exile in Argentina, to participate in a meeting there between Raisi and Venezuelan’s de facto President Nicholas Maduro.[120]

During the earlier Morales period, in 2012, Bolivia and Iran also signed a questionable counter narcotics agreement,[121] despite little evidence of Bolivian cocaine going to Iran.

On the other hand, during the same period, Still, even during that period, Bolivia was still constrained to some extent in its relations with Iran by its public obligations under international law. In 2011 for example, the Morales government was obliged to expedite the departure from the country of visiting Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi,[122] who had an Interpol red notice against him.

With respect to Iran’s current re-engagement with Bolivia, the nation was notably not included on the trip by Iranian President Raisi, his Defense Minister and other Cabinet ministers to the country, perhaps due to Bolivia’s legal obligations which had previously created an embarrassing situation for former Defense Minister Vahidi. Nonetheless, within weeks after the Raisi trip to the region, a Bolivian delegation including its own Defense Minster Edmundo Novillo Aguillar traveled to Tehran where it signed a series of agreements[123] with the Raisi regime on topics including narcotrafficing[124] cooperation and border security capabilities.[125] Iran called the agreement “a role model” for Iran’s cooperation with other states in the region.

Notably, the agreement included Iran supplying drones to the country,[126] as well as other items, allowing the country to increase its military capabilities on the sensitive frontier with Peru, where the substantial Amara indigenous population in the border region played a key role in the December 2022 protests over the removal of power of Pedro Castillo come and associated violence, including the deaths of 16 locals in violent protests in Juliaca.[127] The Argentine government also questioned Iran’s support to Bolivian military capabilities along the Bolivia-Argentina border.
Iran-Argentina Engagement

Prior to Iran’s strategic friendship with Venezuela, established under the regime of Hugo Chavez, Argentina was once an important base of operations for the Islamic Republic’s projection of power in the region. As noted previously, Iranian diplomats such as Mosheen Rabbani, then Iran’s cultural attaché in Buenos Aires, were believed by Argentine prosecutors and others to have played a role in the attacks by terrorist group Hezbollah[128] against the Israeli embassy in 1992 which killed 29 people and injured 242,[129] and the 1994 attack on the Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires (AMIA) that killed 85 and injured over 300.[130] Rabbani has also been implicated in running Hezbollah agents in the region, including Abdul Kadir and Abdel Nurwere,[131] involved in planning a failed attack in 2007 against New York’s John F Kennedy airport. Rabbani was further suspected to be the Iranian controller for Muhammad Amadar, arrested in October 2014 in Surco Peru,[132] with explosives believed to be intended to attack Jewish targets in that country.

Due to the 1992 and 1994 Hezbollah terrorist attacks on Argentine soil, the most deadly to date in Latin America,[133] plus the high-profile investigation by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman that tied Iran to Hezbollah in their planning, and Nissman’s death under questionable conditions,[134] the role of Iran in the region has remained a sensitive issue in Argentina. That sensitivity has inhibited left of center Peronist governments, particularly that of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, from pursuing closer relations with Iran, even if she wished to.

Argentina’s continuing willingness to cooperate legally in the ongoing struggle against international terrorism, whatever the political posture of the Argentine far left toward Iran, has created problems for the Islamic Republic as it has sought to rebuild its engagement in the region. In July 2022, Argentina’s a plane belonging to the Venezuela-registered cargo airline Emtrasur, exposing that it had been flying to questionable destinations corresponding to key Hezbollah operational areas, rather than logical routes for a cargo liner, and with an Iranian crew tied to Iran’s Qods force, including the pilot Gholamreza Ghasemi,[135] a senior member of the organization.
Iran-Brazil Engagement

By contrast to Venezuela, Brazil has long been Iran’s most important economic partner in the region, accounting for 85% of the region’s imports[136] from Iran and 82% of its exports to the country.[137] Despite its weight in the region’s economic relationship with Iran, however, Brazil has generally not previously followed the lead of Venezuela and other leftist populist regimes you know high profile military cooperative agreements.

In its commercial engagement, Iran has long been a supplier of fertilizer to Brazil, produced by its petrochemical industry. With restrictions on Brazil’s ability to purchase nitrate-based fertilizers from Russia, Iran’s portion of the Brazilian market increased following supply disruptions and the imposition of sanctions on Russia. Reciprocally, Iran’s most significant purchases from Brazil include grains and meat.[138]

Because of the geographic proximity of Brazil to Africa across the Atlantic, and the commercial relationship between the two countries, Brazil has also been an important logistics hub in Iran’s commercial relationship to the continent. Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (RISL) maintains offices in Brazil.[139] In August 2023, Iran assigned a commercial attaché to Brazil,[140] reflecting the regime’s desire to expand its important economic relationship with the Lula government.

Beyond commerce, the return of Lula and his Workers Party to power in Brazil in 2023 has deepened the country’s interest in working with Iran as a strategic political partner. In 2010, the prior administration of Lula sought to impose Brazil, along with Turkey, as a negotiator of a nuclear agreement[141] between the United States and Iran. Building on that posture, the more radicalized Lula that returned to power in 2023,[142] in an international context where working against the Western “rules based international order” had more momentum,[143] supported the inclusion of Iran in the expanded BRICS organization,[144] culminating in its formal acceptance during the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in August 2023.[145]

As noted previously Lula has also gone beyond the commitment to strategic engagement with Iran, demonstrated during his prior time in office, by permitting the Iranian warship Macron, and its escort ship Dena, to make a port call in Rio de Janeiro,[146] in February 2023.

In ethnic terms, culturally diverse Brazil has an estimated 200,000 Muslims, although most are ethnic Arabs,[147] of Lebanese/Syrian decent, or converts, rather than Persian. In June 2023, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad-Mehdi Esmaeili indicated plans to establish a new Iranian cultural center in the country.

Iran’s renewed expansion of its political, military and other engagement with the Western Hemisphere is a subset of its broader return to the global stage with the support of Chinese money and an international environment in which the appetite for isolating and disciplining illiberal actors as diminished considerably. Iran’s return has profound implications for The United States and the region. With its integration into the BRICS, a consolidated power base of friends like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba, and other key players like Brazil increasingly willing to engage with it, Iran has the potential to develop deeper economic and other ties in the region than before.

Although Iran will continue to be resource-constrained and most focused on its own region, its activities in Latin America will complement the dynamics of other extra-hemispheric actors such as China, as well as subnational and transnational groups such as Hezbollah that Iran works with globally as surrogates, complicating the calculus of US strategic planners in the region.

While the US government already has an abundance of strategic challenges in Latin America and globally, it is important for it to renew attention to Iran’s reengagement and its implications, given that Latin America is the region with which US prosperity and security is most directly tied through bonds of geography, commerce, and family.

Source » dialogo-americas