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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.
From the Monroe Doctrine, which was aimed at curbing the encroachments of European powers in the nineteenth century, to Cold War foreign policy, designed to forestall the geopolitical machinations of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century, Washington has stopped at nothing in its bid to maintain power and prestige within its own regional "back yard" of Latin America. But with all of those rivalries now a relic of the past, the U.S. is moving on to the next threat to its own hegemony: Iran. That, at least, is the impression I got from reading diplomatic cables which were recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks.
For Washington, a great concern was that Iran might gain a strategic foothold in South America, recruiting key allies such as Brazil. Much to the chagrin of the Americans, Brazil under former president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva sought to carve out a more independent foreign policy which even embraced the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By extending cooperation to Iran, Lula aimed to increase trade and boost collaboration on biotechnology and agriculture. In a surprising development, Lula even urged the west to drop its threats of punishment over Iran's nuclear program, a move which proved very reassuring to the politically isolated Ahmadinejad.
Throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, U.S. officials in Brasilia sought to glean more information about this budding relationship, sound out disaffected politicians, and express displeasure about growing diplomatic ties between Teheran and Brasilia when need be. Key in this effort was U.S. ambassador in Brasilia Clifford Sobel, who pressured the Brazilian Ministry of Energy to cut its burgeoning ties to Iran. Speaking to government officials, Sobel expressed deep concern over Brazilian state energy company Petrobras, which had been considering plans to invest in the Iranian oil and gas sector, located in the Caspian Sea.
The Petrobras Imbroglio
WikiLeaks correspondence reveals Brazilian diplomats as walking a very fine tight rope, striking out on the one hand toward rogue nations like Iran but on the other hand very keen on placating the Bush administration and staying within Washington's good graces. Responding to Sobel, the Brazilians argued that if they did not invest in Iran then the Chinese would certainly beat them when it came time to develop deep water exploration and production. However, the Brazilians also "acknowledged the seriousness of the issue [Brazilian-Iranian energy ties] to the international community and, although they did not say Petrobras would halt its… activities in Iran, they did make it clear that they understand the sensitivity of the political moment."
In a further effort to shore up energy ties, Brazilian under Secretary for Political Affairs Roberto Jaguaribe met with Iranian Vice Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh Attar some time later. "In particular," U.S. diplomats noted, "Iran was fishing for increased Petrobras investment, although the Iranians seem to be growing impatient with Petrobras' unresponsiveness." Concerned about the situation, the Americans again pressed Brasilia to clarify. Petrobras would not be bullied into any rash decisions by Teheran, government authorities stressed, and the company was unlikely to increase its stake in Iran in the near term. "Indications that Petrobras is winding down its operations in Iran is a positive sign," noted Sobel, but the sanguine diplomat was quick to add that Brazil was "playing it both ways" with Washington and Teheran.
In late 2008, Sobel was still pleased that Brazil was "trying to assuage our concerns" on Iran. Nevertheless, the ambassador had grown concerned, writing the State Department that "we will need to intensify our dialogue…if we hope to sway the government of Brazil that this is not the moment for increased engagement with Tehran." Confiding in the Americans, Brazilian officials claimed that their country was "under tremendous pressure from Iran…to increase Petrobras investment." Though Brazilian officials continued to stress that Petrobras was not considering any further investments in Iran, they also believed there was much "trade to be done between the two countries."
At the Rio Defense Fair
In the realm of defense, too, U.S. diplomats were eager to head off any growing ties between Brasilia and Teheran. In April, 2007 the Americans received worrying reports about Iranian participation at a Latin American Air and Defense show to be held in Rio de Janeiro, which had been organized by a U.K.-based firm. When he found an Iranian stand at the event, which stood in violation of United Nations Security Council strictures, an organizer grew alarmed and immediately contacted the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also known as Itamaraty.
The Brazilians claimed they were unaware of the Iranian presence at the show, and would take steps to shut down the Iranian stand. In Teheran, meanwhile, the Brazilian ambassador was dressed down by the Iranians who vigorously protested the treatment. Why had they been invited to the show and then subsequently shut down, the Iranians wanted to know? Defensively, the Brazilian ambassador countered that the invitation had been issued well before the issuing of United Nations Security Council measures.
It would seem that the Brazilians were acting in good faith and in accordance with international law, but both Britain and the U.S. were still unsure where the Lula government stood. When asked by the British if they would act to seize any assets belonging to the Iranian Defense Industries, Lula officials explained that no such interests existed in Brazil. For their part, the Americans were a bit mystified about Brazilian intentions and wondered whether the authorities actually ordered the closing of the Iranian stand or merely "stood back" and left the closing of the booth to the show's UK-based organizing firm.
U.S. concern over defense-related matters continued well into the Obama era, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton's secret cable to the American Embassy in Brasilia. The new Secretary of State requested that diplomats alert the Lula government to a possible effort by the Iranian firm Machine Sazi Tabriz to acquire machine tools from a Brazilian company called Mello S.A. Maquinas e Equipamentos. Sazi Tabriz, Clinton explained, was the largest manufacturer of machine tools in Iran and had provided tools to the Islamic Republic's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Brazilian export of machine tools to the company, Clinton elaborated, could therefore be diverted to Iran's weapons programs.
Senator Fortes Sounds the Alarm
Concerned over Iranian-Brazilian ties, U.S. diplomats conferred with dissident politicians opposed to Lula's more independent foreign policy. In Brasilia, a "handful" of legislators had started to worry about the independent trajectory of Lula's foreign policy. One of those politicians, opposition Senator Heraclito Fortes of the Democrats Party, breathlessly called the U.S. ambassador in late 2007. Fortes requested an urgent meeting "to raise a matter he could not discuss on the telephone." As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations and National Defense committees, he apparently saw himself as the last bastion of hope against Lula's more assertive trajectory on the world stage. Sitting down with the ambassador and other embassy staff, including the assistant U.S. army attaché no less, the Brazilian painted an alarmist picture, remarking that he was "truly concerned" about Iranian, Venezuelan and Russian collaboration in the South American theater, including potential financing of arms sales.
According to Fortes, presidential foreign policy advisor Marco Aurelio García had recommended that Ahmadinejad himself visit Brazil, and therefore the U.S. government should become engaged "before it is too late." Growing even more heated and agitated, Fortes accused the Americans of being "indifferent" to what was happening in the region. "You are children," Fortes declared to the startled Americans. "You ignore a problem until it is well along and then it is too late." In order to counteract Iran, Fortes recommended increased U.S. arms manufacturing partnerships with Brazil.
Internal Dissent on Controversial Policy
Fortes continued to seek out American counsel, as evidenced by a further cable dated from April, 2008. This time the Brazilian sounded the alarm bell about Ali Reza Sheikh Attar, who had traveled to Brasilia in hopes of drumming up support for an anti-U.S. bloc in South America. According to Fortes, the Iranian diplomat complained about UN pressure on Iran's nuclear program, and went so far as to claim that after the Olympics, China would purposefully exert pressure on the American dollar by selling off its U.S. investments. Reportedly, Attar told Fortes that these Chinese actions would "be more powerful than an atomic bomb."
On the whole, Fortes declared, it was unlikely that Brazil would ever join in any anti-U.S. crusade in South America, but the politician was concerned about certain figures within the Lula circle including presidential adviser García who was reportedly receptive to Iranian overtures. Itamaraty meanwhile seemed intent on pursuing a "correct" relationship with Iran, and unfortunately there was little that Congress could do to stop such high level diplomacy, save stalling ambassadorial appointments or appealing to public opinion.
Other cables hint at further dissension within the ranks. According to U.S. diplomats, Lula and Itamaraty "were getting pressured on a near-daily basis by Brazilian religious and ethnic minority groups opposed to the Iranian government's activities." Indeed, Brazilian Jews had lobbied high up officials within Lula's Workers' Party, advising the president not to meet with Ahmadinejad. In addition, Brazilian Baha'is and Syrian-Lebanese Christians who had become alarmed by Iranian fundamentalism registered their concerns on a "more ad hoc basis."
Attempt to Reassure U.S. Diplomats
Eager to exploit internal tensions over Brazil's controversial Iran policy, U.S. diplomats continued to press Lula officials on the growing number of meetings between the two countries. "Iran seems to be placing a significant number of eggs in the Brazil basket as part of its strategy for enhancing relations with Latin America," ambassador Sobel noted, "as indicated by the bilateral meetings, the outreach to congress, and the push for a presidential meeting." When pressed by the U.S., Brasilia authorities admitted to the exchanges but claimed that "Iran's interest in Brazil does not begin to approach the level of Iranian links with Venezuela."
Tensions continued into early 2008, when the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia pressed officials to clarify high level diplomacy reaching out to Ahmadinejad. The Americans had grown concerned, noting that Brazil "often tilted uncomfortably towards the anti-U.S. view of things in the Middle East." Again, Lula officials were defensive, claiming that Middle East diplomacy was "necessary to balance Brazil's high-level engagement with the Arab countries." In another tack, the Brazilians stated that it was Iran, and not Brazil, which was pressing most for greater political and economic engagement.
Brasilia officials declared that they were skittish about a potential Lula-Ahmadinejad meeting, and "they were trying to stall such an encounter but that sooner or later they would run out of pretexts and a meeting would become inevitable." Perhaps, American diplomats noted, the Lula government realized that "evenhandedness [was] critical to remain a credible player." By avoiding a presidential meeting with Ahmadinejad, Brazil seemed to be sending a "positive signal that [it] understands its responsibility as a self-proclaimed neutral player."
Turning the discussion to Iran's wider role in South America, the Brazilians sought to appease U.S. concerns. "Bolivia," they noted, "has nothing to offer Iran, commercially or politically." Even the Iranian-Venezuelan alliance, they continued, had "no substance." Overall, the Brazilians downplayed Ahmadinejad's influence, declaring that the Iranian leader, like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, was "more bluster than anything."
Despite such reassurances, Sobel remained unconvinced and, in July, 2008 wrote his superiors that Brazil's continued focus on the Middle East was "worrisome." Overall, the diplomat added, Brazil's "almost obsessive interest in pursuing 'balanced' relations tends to come at our expense, leading the government of Brazil to stay neutral on such issues as Iranian support of Hizballah, Iranian activities in Iraq, and Tehran's flouting of United Nations Security Council resolutions, while remaining blind to aggressive Iranian moves in the region."
In Sobel's view, it was unlikely that the U.S. could persuade Brasilia "to take an approach fully in step with ours." Nevertheless, he added, "it is critical to engage the government of Brazil both to ensure they have a complete understanding of U.S. policy and concerns in the region, and to demonstrate that we take Brazil's leadership aspirations seriously." Accordingly, Sobel urged Washington to send high level authorities "to come to Brasilia for detailed discussions with Brazilian government officials, members of Congress, and, where appropriate, press, regarding Iran nuclear proliferation, support for terrorism."
Sobel then detailed the planned charm offensive. In addition to Fortes, a couple of other Senators had expressed concern with Lula's foreign policy, and the U.S. should therefore "take advantage" of this "window opening up to bridge the gap in our Middle East dialogue." Washington should "seize the opportunity to try to steer Brazil away from its usual role of sideline sniper and make an attempt to recruit Brazil into a helpful or at least truly neutral role."
Obama Officials: Whose Side is Brazil On?
Sideline sniper or genuine ally? That seems to be the question on many U.S. policymakers' minds, including newly appointed Secretary of State Clinton, who sent a detailed questionnaire to subordinates seeking more information on Iran's precise role in South America. In particular, Clinton wanted to know what governments in the wider region sought from Iran, and how they were catering to the desires of the Islamic Republic. In addition, Clinton wanted to know, were Latin American governments concerned about Iran's ties to terrorism? If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, the Americans were perplexed by Iran's political offensive in the region, and had precious little intelligence about the Islamic Republic's diplomatic missions or wider strategic intentions.
Sensing American disquiet, the Brazilians again sought to reassure Washington shortly after Obama's inauguration. Speaking to U.S. diplomats, Lula officials said they had tried their utmost to strike a conciliatory tone with Ahmadinejad, urging the Iranians to "respond positively" to Obama's more multi-faceted approach to foreign affairs. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Roberto Jaguaribe then heaped praise on Obama for striking the "right signal" and "right chords" to the Iranians.
U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske, however, was unconvinced by Brazil's double game. In late 2009, she wrote Washington worriedly that Ahmadinejad would likely travel to Brasilia and sign bilateral agreements. Lula and his inner circle of advisors, however, did "not appear to fully grasp the negative feedback that will be created by the Iran visit." Kubiske seems to have believed that Brazil was out of its depth and had only a "small number of experts on the Middle East in Itamaraty." As it punched above its weight, carrying out a "frenzied effort" to reach out to many players in the Middle East, Brazil risked committing "missteps and misunderstandings." Without a clear sense of Brazilian loyalties, Kubiske reiterated the Embassy's earlier request to send Washington Middle East experts to Brasilia for a set of thorough briefings.
WikiLeaks documents leave off in early 2010, but one can be sure that American puzzlement over Brazil continues today. Though Lula's successor Dilma Rousseff has been less of a maverick in foreign affairs than her predecessor, Brazil is certainly a rising power on the world stage and the country will likely throw its weight around, not always to the liking of Washington which expects its regional partners to stay in line and not depart from the age old script.
As the WikiLeaks scandal drags on, a portrait is emerging of Brazil, and suffice it to say it is not too flattering. A rising power with global aspirations, Brazil has a lot more political and economic muscle than, say Venezuela or Bolivia. Yet, time and again the Lula administration takes a very meek approach toward the United States or, even worse, goes along with Washington's geopolitical machinations.
In previous articles, I discussed the Machiavellian scheming of Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who has sought to thwart the Ministry of Foreign Relations, also known as Itamaraty, in an effort to redirect foreign policy toward the United States. After reviewing those documents, I expected upcoming caches to paint a more progressive picture of Itamaraty's dealings. However, recently released cables certainly don't paint Brazilian diplomats as a particularly principled bunch either.
Though American diplomats under Obama fret that "U.S.-Brazil cooperation is often limited by Brazil's unwillingness to speak out against anti-democratic actions in the hemisphere (Venezuela and Cuba)," nonetheless they note that "military-to-military relations are good and growing, and most of the Brazilian military understands the potential benefits of partnership with the United States." Meanwhile, "cooperation on law enforcement issues, such as counternarcotics, container security, and intelligence sharing, is excellent and improving." Diplomats noted other areas of mutual interest including climate change and bio-fuels, neither of which bodes well for the environment [for more on this see my online articles regarding Brazilian obstructionism at the Copenhagen climate summit and its backroom deals with the United States].
Key in solidifying the diplomatic relationship with the U.S. is Minister Jobim, a political figure wielding considerable influence within the Lula administration. During a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela in late 2009, a "friendly and engaged" Jobim said that Brazil had no problem with the United States signing a defense agreement with Colombia. In another separate meeting with U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones, Jobim "stressed the importance of regional stability for Brazil, but cautioned that Brazil resists being labeled the regional leader because they do not see it as helpful in resolving problems."
One reason that Jobim may have been reluctant to challenge the U.S. within the Andean region has to do with weapons purchases and the expanding role of the military in Brazilian society. During his meeting with Valenzuela, Jobim expressed interest in purchasing Global Super Hornet F18 fighter planes from Boeing. Though many Brazilians have an unpleasant view of the armed forces as a result of the repressive military dictatorship of 1964-1985, Lula has recently moved the defense industry center stage. In tandem with such desires, "Jobim highlighted the fact that Brazil's new National Defense Strategy was crafted to ensure the defense sector would be an 'enabler of development.'"
García, Amorim and Rousseff: A Machiavellian Bunch
Brazilian diplomats are less partial to the U.S. agenda than Jobim, though they clearly don't want to rock the boat too much. In conversations with Valenzuela, Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Marco Aurelio García characterized Hugo Chávez as a politician who "has no sense of proportion." García however did suggest that Valenzuela head to Caracas in an effort to improve U.S.-Venezuelan relations. In response, Valenzuela was non-committal, noting that it was "difficult to ignore both the provocative statements by Chávez and his authoritarian tendencies." If García pressed Valenzuela any further on the matter, a cable released by Wikileaks makes no mention. As the conversation continued, García sought to reassure the visiting U.S. diplomat that Brazil was a "responsible" partner and dished on other leftist nations in South America. For example, García "described Ecuador's and Bolivia's political systems as 'rotten'; and called the future of Argentina 'a big question mark,' depending on whether the Kirchners recover or not." In the separate meeting with Jones, García stated that Brazil supported a U.S. free trade deal with Colombia. In a revealing aside, Lula Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff, who succeeds to the presidency of Brazil shortly, remarked that it was "disconcerting" to be confronted with questions from the press regarding United States bases in Colombia. "According to Rousseff," one cable notes, "issues such as this open the door for radicals who want to create problems in the region."
Speaking with Jones, the conversation then turned to the matter of the coup in Honduras. Though García supported the return of ousted leader and Chávez protégé Manuel Zelaya, the Brazilian was quick to add that Zelaya should be of little concern to Washington as he was "not a dangerous revolutionary." There was no need to worry, García added, noting that returning Zelaya to power "will not lead to significant changes." At that point, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim chimed in, proudly announcing that even though Chávez had wanted to make Zelaya into a martyr, Brazil had at long last convinced the Venezuelan leader that "only the United States can influence what happens in Honduras" and needed to be consulted. Hoping to mollify U.S. diplomats on Iran, Amorim characterized Brazil's ties to the Islamic Republic as "not deep, but pragmatic" and dominated by commercial concerns. He said the nature of the alliance should not be "overvalued" as the two nations "were not buddies." Echoing Amorim, García added that Brazil's engagement with the Islamic Republic was merely "a bet" which might not work. García described Lula's reception of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "not warm."
What Does Brazil Stand For?
Reading the WikiLeaks cables, it is clear that Brazilian officials are exceedingly fixated on their image and on demonstrating to the United States that their country is a responsible player which stands for political stability, i.e. not leftist radicalization or populist rule. Though Lula pursued a quirky foreign policy at times, Rousseff's aside suggests she may opt for moderation rather than adventurism when crafting her own foreign policy over the next couple of years. For Venezuela and Bolivia, the not so subtle message from the WikiLeaks scandal is clear: while Brazil will not destabilize neighboring countries, neither can it be trusted.
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.