Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Blouin Beat World: Rowhani’s fraught Latin American situation

Rowhani's fraught Latin American situation
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Blouin Beat: World
August 7, 2013
Originally published:

On Sunday, August 4, Hassan Rowhani was sworn in as Iran’s new president. The U.S. government has 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.
The inauguration of a new president does not render such relations totally uncomplicated: no Latin American head of state went to Tehran for it, though high-level officials traveled to the ceremony in abundance. These included Cuban Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas, Nicaraguan Vice President Moisés Omar Halleslevens Acevedo, the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly Diosdado Cabello, as well as the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Patriota and his Ecuadorian counterpart, Ricardo Patiño. No shock in all this: the U.S. is keeping a weather eye on the semiotics of power at play here. Remember that Secretary of State John Kerry stated that Latin America is the “back yard” of the U.S. in April. Remember that the close relations between Caracas and Tehran during the Chavez and Ahmadinejad administrations prompted allegations that Venezuela was providing uranium to Iran for its controversial nuclear program. Remember that when Tehran and Managua began increasing diplomatic ties, there were rumors that the Iranian diplomatic mission in Nicaragua served a covert purpose as a regional intelligence hub.  The situation for Rowhani is fraught, to say the least.
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 attack at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and a July 1994 attack at a Jewish community center — that killed over 100 people. The Iranian government has long been accused of being the mastermind of the attacks, and there is broad speculation that the new Iranian president had a role in the ‘94 attack. Rowhani will likely support an agreement made by Ahmadinejad in January 2013 (the Argentine Congress ratified it in February) that sets up a binational commission to 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 than realpolitik.

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