Ahmadinejad Chavez 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The visit of Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to South America in July was mainly aimed at stemming Iranian influence on the continent; a phenomenon that Lieberman understood well. His visit underscored the urgent need to balance the influence and infiltration of Islamic fundamentalism and Iranian interests in the region.
Disenfranchised and marginalized regions are prime targets for fundamentalists and fanatics of all kinds. Central American countries such as Nicaragua, and South American countries like Venezuela and Bolivia are targets today due to their histories and their cultural, economic and political environments.
Central and South America were attractive to the Nazis after the war because they were remote, the indigenous inhabitants lived simple lives, and the region did not have many Western intelligence assets on the ground. Today, countries like Brazil and Argentina are developed democracies, peaceful and prosperous. Others, such as Venezuela and Bolivia, are dabbling in socialism and radical reform, which brings continuing political unrest; for some, it may also be the beginning of a path whose end cannot be foreseen.
Take, for example, Bolivia - the largest landlocked country in South America to which many Nazis fled. The nation has witnessed not only socialist and revolutionary movements since its independence in 1809, but also dictatorships aided by high-ranking Nazi officials. Its current president is from one of the oldest native groups in the region - a positive sign, but also a challenge to bridge the gap between the poor indigenous population and the drive for economic growth and social equality.
President Evo Morales, with his highly socialist approach, nationalized petroleum assets right after his election. The government has also moved toward nationalizing large land parcels and some lucrative industries. The country witnessed turmoil, violence and large-scale conflict when Morales rewrote the constitution and gave much more power to select aboriginal groups. With strong unions and social activism encompassing all aspects of life, including businesses and bureaucracy, Bolivia has some serious challenges to meet.
Instability is a key factor in the foreign relations puzzle as it is inviting for terror-supporting nations and groups. Central and South America, on the doorstep of the United States, have become inexpensive and fertile grounds for recruitment and training, and a good all-around address for any group looking to expand outside the Middle East. Instability provides opportunity because it generates needs that organized and well-funded state sponsors can meet.
AS IRAN'S sphere of influence grows and deep relationships with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega form, Teheran is not only repeating the success from lessons learned with Hizbullah in Lebanon, but is also displaying a unique understanding of the cultural nuances of the region. The Iranian approach with Hizbullah was a similar exercise in relationship building that started in the early 1980s. Not only did the Iranian regime train and arm Hizbullah militants, they also built medical centers, schools, mosques and homes for Shi'ite sympathizers.
The Iranians have clearly understood that reaching the hearts and minds of the poor is critical to successful relationships, internally and internationally. North Americans have failed to leverage their own relationships in part because they have not grasped the nuances involved. Through low-interest loans of more than $250 million to Bolivia, helping Nicaragua to build ports, schools and hospitals, and through the exporting of technology and other products to Venezuela, Iran has secured a place in Central and South America.
Iran's interest in the region is multifaceted. Individually and in combination, the one-two punch of Iranian and Russian relationship-building has resulted in some dangerous liaisons that will make for a dramatic shift in the political environment in the years to come. Having the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hizbullah and Hamas moving in down the street will immensely complicate the fight against terror in the Americas. It may reinforce some of the existing power plays and create instability even as countries try to use it to build stronger economies.
The region is a perfect environment for training, supply chain management, manufacturing and administrative activities for terror-supporting groups. In addition to the overall climate of instability and internal power struggles, proximity to the culture of violence found in Colombia with its drug cartels and the huge potential for wealth based on the drug trade are a good match for terrorist methods.
While Iran courts new allies with funds for milk-processing and health clinics, hard-nosed Western policies toward the region, especially Venezuela, have driven some of these nations into the arms of the both the Iranians and the Russians - an unintended impact brought on by miscalculation or naÃ¯vetÃ©.
THE RISK is that Iran is not only building Bolivia's milk-processing capacity. Regardless of whether Bolivia would agree to supply Iran with uranium ore, its recent $1.2 billion in trade agreements with Iran, including mineral exploration and treatment, could be viewed as a step in that direction. Iran needs a reliable source of uranium, and Bolivia may be it. So Iran is following its tried and true methodology to woo Central and South American governments and people.
Building infrastructure and facilities in the poorer areas also builds strong ties between the countries. Mutual recognition and collaboration among some of these disenfranchised countries is giving birth to a shift in global anti-Western dominance.
"I salute all the revolutionaries who oppose world hegemony," said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Hugo Chavez during his September 2006 visit to Venezuela. While the relationships are, relatively speaking, new (since 2005), it is a dangerous high-stakes game that countries like Venezuela and Bolivia can't afford to lose. The region is ill-equipped to deal with the influence of political Islam.
Iranians have certainly arrived in the Americas with a long-term, multi-faceted strategy for the region. Uranium is one facet. Another facet could be the creation of a conduit for other Islamic and political movements, enabling them to gain a foothold in the region or it could be a means for Iran to export its own brand of political Islam and maintain control over the region in association with the Russians.
The writer is a public policy and international relations adviser in Ottawa, Canada.