Yael Marciano Headshot
Matias A. Sueldo Headshot

Squeezing Iran Out of Latin America

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President Obama was in Seoul last week mobilizing the international community to counter nuclear weapons proliferation. He met with the Russians and Chinese on the sidelines and asked them to support the international community's diplomatic and economic stranglehold of Iran. And yet, even as an Iranian nuclear weapon looms, the U.S. is moving too slowly to cut the Iranian regime's growing lifeline in Latin America.

Since 2005, the regime's Latin American lifeline has grown through six new embassies and 17 cultural centers. In tandem, Iran has dramatically increased the size of its diplomatic missions across the region.

The ayatollahs' diplomatic offensive has borne results. At a 2010 joint press conference in Tehran, representatives from Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela announced their determination to "continue and expand their economic ties to Iran," in effect, to assist Iran in evading international sanctions.

In January of this year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shored up this support by touring Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador. As the Miami Herald has noted, the five-day trip was his fifth time in the region since 2007, as often as U.S. presidents over the same period and visiting more countries than they did.

Iran has deftly monetized its diplomatic legwork. Expanded cooperation with Cuba spans the agriculture, banking, and health sectors. It has invested $350 million in a new deep-water seaport off Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, along with pipelines, railroads, and highways. Trade with Ecuador has skyrocketed from $2 to 50 million.

Over all other countries, however, the Iranian regime's relations have been strongest with the Hugo Chávez government in Venezuela. Strong bilateral cooperation exists in the political, economic, scientific, and cultural spheres. Chávez and Ahmadinejad have visited each other's capitals and jointly lambasted the U.S. A direct commercial flight now exists from Caracas to Tehran.

Most worryingly, in a 2009 cable to Washington published by Wikileaks, the then U.S. ambassador in Caracas discussed claims and denials from high-level Venezuelan officials that the country was using Iran's help to exploit Venezuela's uranium reserves. The 2009 cable ultimately concluded that "there does not appear to be a project underway to develop this resource." And yet today, rumors swirl of airliners departing Caracas half-full to Tehran, purportedly to protect passengers from radiation. The Israeli government has also claimed that Caracas is selling uranium to Tehran.

More tangible security benefits have also inured from the regime's diplomatic offensive, given that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force stations operatives in overseas embassies, charities, and religious and cultural institutions. Some analysts believe that the Quds Force may be building a network of local operatives, Hezbollah cells, and other sympathetic anti-U.S. organizations in order to strike back at U.S. and Israeli targets should there be a military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.

To all this, what has the U.S. done?

On March 7, the "Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012" was finally referred by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to the full House for consideration. The bill is still awaiting passage by the House and the Senate. Even if passed, the bill gives the Secretary of State six months to produce a strategy to address Iranian activity in the Western Hemisphere, and only until one year after that does it require the Secretary of State to provide a progress report on the strategy's implementation.

Given estimates that Iran could be within months of obtaining a nuclear weapon, this timeline is simply unacceptable. The Obama administration must and can mobilize the hemisphere to action against Iran. No congressional bill is necessary.

Our efforts are best spent on Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Their governments are less ideological, less reliant on anti-U.S. tirades for domestic survival, and supported by progressive constituencies appalled by the ayatollahs' authoritarian practices and support for al-Assad's gory repression. Compared to Cuba and Venezuela, they do not rely on Iran as their own diplomatic and economic lifelines, and are more enmeshed in the regional architecture. A turn against Iran would curry favor with regional powerhouses Brazil, which refused an Iran visit, and Argentina, which blames Iran for two bombings in Buenos Aires in the 1990s.

The U.S. should also urge the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate Caracas' potential sale of uranium to Tehran, which would be in violation of its obligations under Article I, III (1), and III (2) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In short, more must be done more quickly to choke off Iran's lifeline in Latin America. If we do not, the continent-sized hole in the international community's strategy will doom that strategy to failure.

Yael Marciano is a fellow at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Matias A. Sueldo is a joint-degree candidate at Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

This post was first published by The Boston Herald.