On Sunday, August 4, Hassan Rowhani was sworn in as Iran’s new president.The U.S. governmenthas shown cautious optimism over this change in leadership, an optimism centered on the hope that his administration will allow real movement on the nuke question. But there are other nations in the Western Hemisphere, and they too deal diplomatically with Iran.
This is due in large part to the fact that recent Iran-Latin American rapprochement derives far more from ideological considerations than economic ones. The officials that attended the inauguration in Tehran come (unsurprisingly) from nations known for having governments that are unfriendly to Washington, to put it diplomatically. Brazil’s interest in Iran, for example, is more than partially predicated on this.Iran’s Ambassador to Brazil, Mohammad Ali Qanezadeh, values the current trade between the two countries at around $3.2 billion and recently called for an expansion of bilateral ties. It is debatable how much it can grow given Iran’s economic situation. And any discussion of such ideological ties also lead inevitably toArgentina. Tehran and Buenos Aires have had a complicated relationship since the terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires in the 1990s —a March 1992 attackat the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires anda July 1994 attackat a Jewish community center — that killed over 100 people. The Iranian government has long been accused of being the mastermind of the attacks, andthere is broad speculation thatthe new Iranian president had a role in the ‘94 attack. Rowhani will likely support an agreement made by Ahmadinejad in January 2013 (theArgentine Congressratified it in February) that sets up abinational commissionto investigate the ‘94 attack. Its findings, should they ever see daylight, will wash away any blame from Iran.
So what’s Rowhani’s next step here?In his first official press conference, the moderate cleric stated that he wanted to maintain relations with Latin America. He expressed similar sentiments during his one-on-one meetings with the senior policymakers that attended Tehran for his inauguration. Given Iran’s near-pariah status, there is a long road to travel from ambitious declarations to actions. A key factor of Iran’s successful recent regional policy was the personal friendship between Ahmadinejad and the late President Chavez. And it is it is worth stressing that the Latin American nations that have so far shown interest in maintaining close Iran ties are those whose leaders were close to Ahmadinejad. So Rowhani needs to build up his working relationships in the region, and win another such high-profile ally as a centerpiece for them. Argentina’s Christina de Kirchner is an unlikely option given the pressure she received over the deal on the ’94 bombing attack, while Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff seems wary of further increasing ties with Tehran due to human rights concerns. Given the current geopolitical situation of Iran and Latin America, Rowhani’s only options may be the “usual suspects,” namely Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro or Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, both of whose foreign policies are underpinned by ideological considerations far more thanrealpolitik.