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Iran Election: The Latin America Factor

As Iran heads into a hotly contested presidential election on June 12th, a most unlikely issue stands to exert a political impact upon the race: Latin America. What’s that you say, Latin America? How could a region which is so geographically, culturally, and politically removed from Iran have any bearing on the upcoming election in the Islamic republic? On the surface at least such a connection might seem far-fetched or bizarre yet on a certain level it’s not too surprising that the Iranian political debate has come to center around foreign affairs.

In an effort to undermine Washington, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has befriended Third World countries which are resisting U.S. political hegemony. In particular Iran has carried out an aggressive foreign policy effort in Latin America, a region which has seen the emergence of so-called leftist “Pink Tide” regimes in recent years.

Iran is divided into two political camps which have divergent views about foreign policy. On the one hand conservatives allied to Ahmadinejad would like Iran to continue its bellicose approach towards Washington; reformists meanwhile urge a more moderate and cautious posture. The reformists are pinning their hopes on former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi who seems to have the greatest chance of staging an upset against Ahmadinejad.

Slamming his opponent in a televised speech, Mousavi said “Instead of investing in Iran’s neighboring countries, the government has focused on Latin American states. The President has obviously failed to get his priorities right.” Apparently pining away for antiquity and the lost days of Darius and Xerxes, Mousavi lamented the fact that Iran had ignored its own backyard of the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East in favor of Latin America. “We have neglected civilizations in which Iran has played a role,” he said. “We have forgotten cities we lost in wars between Iran and Russia and cling to countries such as Venezuela and Uruguay,” Mousavi thundered. Iran should have invested in neighboring countries instead of “pouring money” into Latin America, the reformer exclaimed.

The comments seemed to hit a nerve. Afraid that he might lose support amongst his cherished nationalist base, the Iranian President lashed back at Mousavi. “One of these gentlemen [rival candidates] still cannot understand world affairs and this is why he asks us why we have focused on Latin America,” Ahmadinejad declared, his comments oozing condescension. “When the Western countries were trying to isolate Iran, we went to the U.S. backyard and I even delivered my strongest anti-U.S. speech in Nicaragua,” he added.

It’s fascinating that top Iranian statesmen are arguing about Latin America — in a presidential election cycle no less. Yet both candidates are unbelievably — I would argue even woefully — wrong in their approaches towards Latin America. The point is not that Iran is inherently mistaken in reaching out to Latin America but that its diplomacy is cynical and has nothing to do with promoting a shared political and social belief system.

To be sure Ahmadinejad has made plenty of trips to Latin America over the past couple of years and has used the junkets to publicize his supposedly anti-imperialist credentials. In Bolivia, Ahmadinejad promised $1 billion to help develop the Andean nation’s oil and gas sector. Making skillful use of its petrodollars, Iran has also entered into various economic agreements with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. Ahmadinejad has made particular efforts to cultivate political and diplomatic support from Venezuela, a fellow OPEC member. Today Iran and Venezuela are putting together a joint tractor production plant and President Chávez plans to promote the sale of Iranian designed “anti-imperialist cars” for local consumption. Ahmadinejad meanwhile has opened a trade office — in Quito of all places. Iran’s push into Latin America forms part of what Ahmadinejad calls his “counter lasso” of the U.S. The moves have alarmed the likes of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has called Iran’s inroads into Latin America “disturbing.”

Despite his speechifying against the U.S., Ahmadinejad’s Latin American diplomacy has little to do with advancing progressive social and political ideals. For the Iranian leader it’s all about getting diplomatic support from the likes of Venezuela and Brazil for Iran’s nuclear energy program. In this sense Ahmadinejad is square and politically narrow minded. Latin America is the one region of the world where the left has made significant gains in recent years, yet Ahmadinejad has little interest in such developments.

If he truly sought to promote Iranian-Latin American solidarity, Ahmadinejad might have fought for women’s and labor rights. As I discuss in considerable detail in my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008), both groups have advanced exponentially in a political and social sense in countries ranging from Argentina to Venezuela to Brazil.

Unfortunately however Ahmadinejad has led his country in the opposite direction from Latin America. In Iran, the President’s “morality police” stop, beat and arrest young girls for simply walking with their boyfriends in public. When hundreds of women and men marched to commemorate International Women’s Day, police and plainclothes agents charged and attacked the crowd. The security forces then dumped cans of garbage on the heads of women who were seated in a public park and beat protesters with batons for good measure.

When bus drivers in Tehran went on strike to protest working conditions, Ahmadinejad’s security forces attacked and arrested laborers. Bravely, the workers refused to end their strike. That’s when state thugs targeted the workers’ wives and children. Busting into the home of one of the strike leaders, the authorities kicked and beat the man’s wife. In response, labor unions in 18 world capitals took part in protests outside Iranian embassies.

You might have thought that Mousavi would have attacked Ahmadinejad’s hollow “anti-imperialist” politics in advance of the Iranian presidential election. Mousavi himself has stated that he would review discriminatory laws against women if he won the election. Speaking to female supporters in Tehran, he added that he would disband the morality police which enforce strict standards of Islamic dress on the streets.

Mousavi might have praised South American nations for advancing women’s rights. He could have held up Latin countries as a beacon of progress and a model worth aspiring to. Instead he suggested that Iran scrap its Latin American foreign policy in favor of Central Asian diplomacy. Presumably, Mousavi would prefer warm ties with the likes of Uzbekistan, a human rights hellhole where battered women can’t count on any protection from the authorities.

These are the kinds of friends Mousavi would like to cultivate? If so, then this candidate doesn’t offer much of a bold or “reformist” agenda when it comes to charting his country’s future foreign policy.

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