Friday, September 5, 2008

Iran and the left in Latin America

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi for the Asia Times

Bolivian President Evo Morales is in Tehran this week, ushering in a new chapter in his country's economic and strategic cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has promised a hefty investment in Bolivia's energy sector and other joint ventures, some involving other Latin and Central American countries, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, not to overlook Cuba.

In a joint communique, Morales and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have signed off on the need for "concrete political steps against every type of imperialism", while also condemning the intervention of the United Nations Security Council in Iran's nuclear program as "lacking any legal or technical justification".

Bolivia may be a poor country, but it is strategically located and represents an important ally for Iran that can act as a catalyst in enhancing Iran's growing cooperation with other Latin nations, especially those considered leftist or populist.

In his visit to Bolivia last year, Ahmadinejad promised that Iran would make a US$1 billion investment in Bolivia's underdeveloped oil and gas sector and the two sides are now much closer in turning this into reality. Certainly, Morales' decision to set aside any hesitation and fully support Iran's position in the current nuclear standoff goes a long way in cementing Iran-Bolivia friendship.

From Tehran's vantage point, an indirect benefit of Morales' visit is that it impresses on Moscow the services that Tehran can render in strengthening Moscow's anti-unipolarism credo, which was spelled out by President Dmitry Medvedev in his major foreign policy speech last week. Tapping into Cold War lexicon, Medvedev openly mentioned Russia's intention to pursue a "sphere of influence" in politics and made a point of mentioning "not only with neighbors".

As various Russian experts, including at the Russian Center for Strategic Studies, have pointed out, Russia in the aftermath of the Georgia crisis is now inclined to strengthen its ties with countries such as Iran and Venezuela. In light of the Georgia visit this week by US Vice President Dick Cheney, reviled by Premier Vladimir Putin as directly responsible for triggering the Georgia crisis for election purposes, the growing rift between the US and Russia simultaneously represents an opportunity for Tehran both to neutralize UN Security Council efforts to impose tighter sanctions on Iran over the nuclear program and explore further, and more meaningful, strategic cooperation with Russia and the Latin left vis-a-vis the common threat of US unipolarism.

On balance, the post-Cold War record of US unipolarism has been less than desirable. There are many examples of blatant interventionism, bullying and war-mongering that have risked world peace. And now with both the US presidential candidates, Democratic Senator Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, sold on the notion of maintaining the US's pre-eminence in global politics, we must expect continuity with the pattern of post-Cold War policies having the upper hand, albeit with new nuances if Obama wins.

Foreign policy advisors of Ahmadinejad are openly counting on Iran's new relations with Latin America as one of the net gains of his presidency. In fact, the new level of cooperation between Iran and Bolivia and other Latin and Central American countries is a timely, further confirmation of the strategic vision and outlook that they have brought to the government, compared with the Mohammad Khatami government that pushed the arch of detente with the West almost to the exclusion of all else.

Ahmadinejad's foreign policy team is now busy contemplating the next moves now that the Russians are putting to the backburner their hesitations for closer relations with countries labeled "rogue" by the West.

"As far as Iran is concerned the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] in Dushanbe was a success because China and Russia agreed to expand the role and input of observer nations at the SCO, and that includes Iran," a Tehran political analyst told the author. As a result, Iran is today one small leap shy of fully joining the SCO, and membership is only a matter of time as far as Tehran is concerned.

Clearly, the windfalls from the Georgia crisis for Iran are multiplying and Iran's deft Latin diplomacy is meant to add to the new dynamism for geopolitical and geostrategic cooperation with Russia (and China). As a middle power (and not a "tiny one" as derided by Obama recently), Iran as a result of its active global diplomacy in the Non-Aligned Movement has a rather disproportionate global influence that far outweighs its paltry contribution to global economy (less than 1%), and is well-positioned and predisposed to bandwagoning with a new global anti-hegemonic front.

Using its petrodollars to solidify its networks, Iran has already entered into several economic agreements with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba; should Ahmadinejad win re-election next year, his second term will likely deepen these ties even further.

At the same time, the prospect of closer Iran-Russia relations directly impacts Washington's thinking about Iran, given White House's reluctance to consent to a new round of US-Iran dialogue on Iraq's security and or to take Iran's serious misgivings about a US-Iraq security agreement into consideration.

Put simply, ignoring Iran is not an option for Washington any longer as Iran can effectively act as Moscow's junior partner sowing the threads of organic connection to the Latin (and indeed world's) leftist or populist governments. The more organic, or multi-faceted, such ties, the more value and importance attached to Iran by the key SCO nations, Russia and China, which can be seen in the visit of Bolivia's president - Iran's diplomacy performs both regionally and globally.

At this stage it is unclear if China actually favors such a new development, or if Russia is resolved toward this line, since Moscow appears intent on a measure of damage control with the West in the midst of these upheavals, and certainly cooperation with the West on Iran's nuclear program can have the protean value of healing some wounds.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. For his Wikipedia entry, click here.