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U.S. Saber Rattling Over Iran: From the Straits of Hormuz to South American “Backyard” and the WikiLeaks Cables

As tensions ratchet up in the Middle East and the Straits of Hormuz, the U.S. has grown increasingly concerned about what Iran might try next.  Perhaps, the Obama White House miscalculated when it moved to strengthen the sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic, not anticipating that Iran might lash out and raise the stakes.  If Iran does move to block the Straits of Hormuz in retaliation against sanctions, world oil prices could skyrocket which in turn could have severe political repercussions in the U.S.  While the odds are unlikely that Iran would resort to such desperate measures, the embattled and isolated Ahmadinejad leadership may calculate that it can shore up crucial domestic political support by challenging the western powers.


In a further destabilizing move, Ahmadinejad has opted to conduct a four nation tour of Latin America designed to showcase Iran's budding relationship with the region's populist left.  In recent years, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and members of his so-called ALBA alliance have done much to rehabilitate the despotic and increasingly repressive Ahmadinejad.  Prior to the Iranian leader's arrival in Caracas, Chávez rejected calls by the U.S. for nations to insist that Iran stop defying international efforts to evaluate the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.  While the U.S. and its western friends accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear energy program, Venezuela and its ALBA allies have backed Iran in the dispute.


In the unfolding diplomatic crisis in the Middle East, it's difficult to know who the more egregious and reprehensible party might be.  To be sure, Iran could be innocent of charges that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but the Ahmadinejad leadership is detestable for all kinds of other reasons.  The U.S. and its allies, meanwhile, are dangerously escalating tensions and needless to say they already have nuclear weapons.  Now that Ahmadinejad is traveling to Latin America, however, tensions have taken on an entirely new wrinkle.  Leaders of the ALBA bloc would claim that they are simply trying their best to avert a dangerous war in the Middle East against the imperialist machinations of the U.S.  Perhaps, but Chávez and his allies have gone much further than that, embracing Iran and thus tarnishing the left and much of their own political brand in the process.


Ahmadinejad and Chávez: A Perverse Relationship


Venezuela and Iran have little in common except oil and an axe to grind against Washington, but that hasn't stopped the two countries from cultivating unprecedented relations.  Fellow OPEC member states, both nations recently reached an agreement to invest more than $700 million in each other's oil fields and to develop a joint petrochemical plant.  The fruits of Chávez's diplomacy have been nothing short of remarkable: milk processing plants constructed with the help of Iranian technology out in the Venezuelan heartland; a joint development bank with Iran worth $200 million, and Iranian manufacturing plants which produce bicycles, tractors, cement and cars for Venezuelans.  If Chávez himself had to pick a car, it would be Iranian and not a Toyota or Ford.  According to the Venezuelan leader, a new car model called the Centauro is better than other vehicles.  The car is produced by Venirauto, a company set up with help from Iranian capital.


More significantly perhaps, Chávez has extended military cooperation with his Middle Eastern ally.  Iran reportedly provides training and support for the Venezuelan military as well as an ammunition factory.   Hardly amused by such developments, the U.S. has slapped sanctions on Venezuelan state oil company PdVSA for shipping fuel to Iran as well as an Iranian-owned bank in Caracas.  American officials also accuse Iran of using its new business relationships and energy deals in Latin America as "cover" for more illicit activities such as training of Hizbollah militants and developing nuclear weapons. 


WikiLeaks and Venezuelan-Iranian Defense Ties


Compared to the Soviet Union or European nations before it, both of which meddled in Latin American affairs but never seriously enough to threaten Washington's hegemony, Iran is essentially a middle-weight power and it is doubtful whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could ever seriously disrupt U.S. interests in the hemisphere.  Nevertheless, U.S. State Department cables recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks reveal that Washington has been closely monitoring the Islamic Republic.  In 2007, for example, U.S. diplomats spoke with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which reported that Ahmadinejad had begun to build alliances with Latin American leaders.  In Teheran, the Iranians hosted a conference aimed at comparing the Latin American and Iranian revolutions, and invited the daughter of Che Guevara no less to participate. 


Two years later, a befuddled new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought more information about Iran's wider goals.  Ahmadinejad, Clinton noted, appeared to be "the driving force" behind Iran's new push into Latin America, which sought to end the Islamic Republic's diplomatic isolation while recruiting sympathetic and anti-U.S. allies.  While Clinton noted that populist governments such as Ecuador and Nicaragua had cultivated greater ties to Iran, it was Venezuela which intrigued her most, and the new Secretary of State worried that "Hizbollah-linked" individuals might see Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian republic as a safe haven from which to raise funds.  Peppering her diplomatic staff for more information, Clinton asked about Iran's agreement with Venezuela to overhaul Chávez's F-5 aircraft engines and construct munitions plants.  Not stopping there, Clinton also inquired as to Venezuelan efforts to procure Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles and light Iranian aircraft.


From reading the cables, it's difficult to ascertain whether Venezuela took its defense ties with Iran very seriously.  The documents suggest that Clinton was somewhat clueless when it came to assessing Iranian intentions.  Did the new Secretary of State have access to intelligence from other agencies, for example the military, or was there little collaboration?  Honing in on defense related issues, Clinton wanted to know if Venezuela was satisfied regarding the quality of Iranian military goods and training; whether planes belonging to Venezuelan state-run oil company PdVSA were being used to transport arms from Teheran to Damascus, or whether Chávez and the Iranian Republic were pursuing joint nuclear cooperation.  Were Venezuelan flights between Caracas and Teheran being used for purposes of terrorism, Clinton asked?


A Growing Defense Footprint For Ahmadinejad?


Though Clinton's interest in Iran's ties to South America is certainly intriguing, it wasn't the first time that the U.S. had expressed concern.  In 2006, for instance, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas informed Washington that Venezuela had a Muslim population of approximately 250,000 including tens of thousands of Shia'.  Though Venezuelans were "unfamiliar with Muslims and are unable to distinguish Iranians from Arabs or from other Muslims," and Venezuelan and Iranian societies had "little more in common than their despotic leaders' antipathy toward the United States," nevertheless Ahmadinejad was steadily building up a diplomatic presence in Caracas and nine Iranians posted to the Islamic Republic's Embassy represented "a small but growing number of their citizens working in Venezuela in both the formal and informal sectors."


The Americans had become worried about a number of issues, noting for example how Chávez was "favoring Iran with petroleum deals and other contracts that appear to make little commercial sense."  The U.S. ambassador in Caracas also sounded the alarm bell about growing defense ties, noting that "an army official is scheduled to replace the current Iranian Ambassador to Venezuela."  It's sometimes difficult to assess the veracity of U.S. Embassy reports in Latin America, which occasionally relied upon so-called "sensitive reporting."  In Caracas, the Americans had apparently cultivated such high level sources as they sought to ascertain Teheran's precise intentions. 


Referring to anonymous sources, the Americans claimed that Chávez desired lethal armament from Iran such as rockets and other explosive materiel. The Bush administration had denied Chávez vital spare parts to service his U.S.-made fighter aircraft, but in the long run such a policy seems to have proven counter-productive.  According to reports, Chávez became frustrated with Washington and simply turned to Iran for the spare parts.  In a further worrying turn, Venezuela had reportedly sought help from Ahmadinejad in establishing its own military reserve force.  A commander of the Iranian Basij visited Venezuela and a colonel from Iran's revolutionary guard corps was "probably on permanent assignment" in the country.  A retired military officer, meanwhile, told the Americans that "Iran had a small number of soldiers in Venezuela training the reserves."


Iran and Venezuela: A "Radioactive" Relationship?


While the U.S. mainstream media is bound to make sensationalist hay out of Ahmadinejad's trip to South America, the WikiLeaks cables are hardly conclusive about the so-called Iranian-Venezuelan "threat" to the U.S.  What concerned the U.S. Embassy in Caracas above all else was the possibility that Venezuela and Iran might pursue a nuclear partnership, though the evidence at hand was hardly "radioactive."  Ambassador William Brownfield conceded that there was a lot of speculation swirling around such alleged collaboration.  The diplomat argued, however, that "we should not dismiss the uranium rumors."  Relying on press reports and "embassy contacts," Brownfield claimed that Chávez was trying to exploit Venezuelan uranium deposits with Iranian assistance.  According to the ambassador, Iran needed foreign sources of uranium to maintain its nuclear program.


Apparently, the Americans weren't overly shy when it came to communicating their concerns to the Chávez government.  In 2007, they went directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Caracas to discuss UN Security Council Resolution 1737 regarding Iran's nuclear and missile programs.  If Chávez was interested in supplying Iran with uranium, however, the cable makes no mention and indeed correspondence suggests that the Venezuelans were also somewhat circumspect about Ahmadinejad.  "Uncharacteristically," the U.S. Embassy noted, the authorities in Caracas viewed Iran's nuclear energy program "as a very grave matter." 


Perhaps, the Americans were unconvinced by such displays.  In another report, the U.S. Embassy noted that Chávez had already signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran to create a "National Geoscience Database" containing a survey of mineral deposits throughout Venezuela. The Americans feared that creating such a "basic geological map" could be the logical first step toward restarting a uranium program in Venezuela, and they reported that the Iranians might have been active within Chávez's Institute of Geology and Mines.  "At the very least," Brownfield wrote, "it appears clear Venezuela plans to prospect for uranium with the intention of starting a nuclear program."  In the event that the program turned out not to be peaceful, the initiative would merit further scrutiny. 


From Perverse to Outlandish


If the Chávez-Ahmadinejad alliance is perverse, Iran's diplomacy toward Ecuador is even stranger.  Ahmadinejad has promised Ecuador that it will invest in the country's energy and petrochemical industry, and in a visit to Teheran Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa signed more than 25 bilateral accords with his counterpart.  Oddly, Correa has even sought to promote an ecological partnership with oil producing Iran through Ecuador's novel Yasuní initiative in the Amazon rainforest. Iran would seem an odd partner for Ecuador's Correa: the Islamic Republic has been blamed for oil spills in the Persian Gulf resulting in the deaths of whales and dolphins.  WikiLeaks cables suggest that when it comes to Ecuador, the U.S. is just as clueless about Ahmadinejad's intentions as the Venezuelan case. 


There's no real smoking gun in the secret documents, but much evidence of U.S. paranoia.  The United States, Clinton told diplomats, had information that Ahmadinejad planned to open a branch of Iran's Export Development Bank in Ecuador.  The bank, she wrote, provided "financial services to multiple subordinate entities of Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics that permit these entities to advance Iran's WMD programs."  U.S. Treasury officials had met with staff at the Ecuadoran Embassy in Washington to express concerns, but Clinton urged American diplomats to follow up with further discussions in Quito.  Somewhat cryptically, Clinton sought to "warn Ecuador of the risks involved in facilitating financial transactions with Iran."


WikiLeaks: Raising More Questions than Answers


For a middle-weight power, Iran has surely beefed up ties to many Latin American nations.  On the other hand, I suspect that this "marriage of convenience" between Latin America and Iran will not prove very enduring.  If the Arab Spring should pick up steam and spread to Iran, then more moderate elements might take power.  Mir-Hossein Moussavi, Ahmadinejad's rival in Iran's previously marred presidential election, said that Ahmadinejad's foreign policy moves had "isolated" and "disgraced" Iranians in the international arena.  "Instead of investing in Iran's neighboring countries, the government has fixed eyes and poured money into Latin American states," Mousavi quipped.  "The President has obviously failed to get his priorities right."  Even if Ahmadinejad and his hardliners should prevail, it's by no means clear that South American societies will continue to approve of increasingly close Iranian ties.  The many contradictions and fissures in the friendship have become more and more evident and threaten to cause ruptures between the region's many social and political constituencies and local leftist leaders. 


Nevertheless, as Ahmadinejad continues his tour throughout Latin America, we can probably expect the usual saber rattling from U.S. officials and the mainstream media making the case that Iran represents a true threat to the hemisphere.  The bottom line, however, is this: though U.S. diplomats would like to make alarmist claims about Iran's military presence, the evidence is pretty thin thus far [unless, of course, the Americans turned up additional information in recent years, as the WikiLeaks cache ends in early 2010].  What the increasingly desperate Ahmadinejad truly hopes to accomplish in the region is difficult to fathom, and while the WikiLeaks cables provide some limited clues, the documents ultimately lead to more questions than answers.

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