While reading about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's upcoming trip to New York this Monday to participate in the meeting of the UN General Assembly, I noticed an article in the Iranian press about Iran's expanding its relations with Bolivia. The article, which describes the visit of a Bolivian government official to Iran where he convinced the government to build a tractor plant in his country, lacks significance in its content. But its tone and the circumstances surrounding this event are important. The article comes from Iran's official news agency PressTV.ir, part of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting system since 2007 and is written in a style reminiscent of press releases repeated verbatim years ago in the Soviet press.
Despite its propagandizing tone, the article correctly reflects the magnitude of the efforts by Iran to expand its reach in Latin America. This process has intensified since the election of Ahmadinejad in August 2005 and has led to stronger ties with Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua and Ecuador, among other Latin American nations. For Iran the effort is a way to challenge the influence of the United States and Europe while gathering international support against diplomatic pressure by these powers, fortifying its aspirations to become a regional hegemonic power and gain legitimacy for a regime many see as one which extols Islamic extremism.
In June 2009, Ahmadinejad explained the logic behind the expansion in diplomacy efforts: "When the Western countries were trying to isolate Iran, we went to the backyard of the United States," referring to Latin America.
But what is the significance for these aforementioned Latin American governments?
Historically, the increasing presence of Iran in the Western hemisphere coincides with the advent to power through electoral support by charismatic leaders belonging to an institutionalized left. These efforts initially seemed hopeful to both those in Latin American as well as many outside the region. These movements, supported by mass popular organizations, were headed by secular proponents of social justice and important changes in these countries. In Brazil these efforts were successful in propelling the country to regional leadership and impressive development under Presidents Lula da Silva and now, Dilma Rousseff. So what do these Latin American governments have in common with that of the Ayatollahs?
Certainly it is not an economic affinity. While commerce between Iran and Latin America has increased since 2005, it 2009 it reached only $2.59 billion, a fraction of the $140 billion of Iran's trade with China. The mutual trade and investment agreements seem mostly symbolic: a $350 million deep water seaport promised to Nicaragua in 2006 was never built; trade with Venezuela, while quadrupled, reached only $56 million two years ago. And commerce between the US and each of these countries significantly outweights commerce with Iran.
Maybe, by focusing on their partnerships with Iran, these Latin American nations hoped to portray their autonomy and create distance from the hegemonic United States. However, instead of benefiting these countries, these relationships with Iran's extremist, strident and despotic government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only condemns them, placing them on the wrong side of history.
Years ago I visited my home country, Argentina, for the first time in 30 years. Compared with my memories, Buenos Aires, my hometown, had changed dramatically; the streets were much narrower than I remembered; the area around the city's central landmark, the Obelisk, was deserted on New Year's Eve, with the exception of Japanese tourists and the homeless. And the main building of the Jewish Center, the focal point of the large Jewish community, was in ruins. I stood in front of what remained of the original seven-story building only three blocks from my childhood home, incredulous, with tears in my eyes. On July 18, 1994 a bomb exploded there, killing 85 people and wounding 300, among them several friends of my family. In 2006, Argentina officially accused the government of Iran of planning the attack, executed by members of Hezbollah. The following year, then-President Nestor Kirchner denounced Iran in the meeting of the UN General Assembly, saying that "it had not cooperated on clarifying" the assault. That same year, Interpol upheld its decision to issue its most serious of all documents, Red Notices, against various Iranian officials in connection with the investigation, asking for their arrest. Instead of cooperating, shortly after the Interpol decision, Ahmadinejad named one of these officials cited, Ahmad Vahidi, to the post of Defense Minister.
And although documents recently published by Wikileaks reveal the existence of ongoing demand by major governmental bodies on Argentine authorities not to remove their ongoing pressure on Iran, this by itself does not invalidate the Argentinean claims.
At any rate, the Argentine Jewish community never recovered from this attack. It took place after the destruction of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires two years earlier, when 30 people were killed and 240 wounded. Here as well, Iran was declared responsible, first by the Argentine Supreme Court in 1999 and in 2008 by an American federal judge who said that Iran was politically and financially responsible for this truck bombing and ordered Iran to pay $33 million to the family of an American citizen killed there.
This is not the only thing that surprises me in these ties between progressive, popular, representative Latin American leaders and the Iranian government. Iran is an antidemocratic theocracy where political opponents and criminals are executed publicly, where electoral fraud allows an ultraconservative clique to govern the country and where women's rights are trampled by law (Between 1983 and 2009 execution by stoning of adulterous women was part of the legal code); where abundant human rights violations prompted Amnesty International to launch a targeted campaign, and where political parties with ideologies similar to those in the previously mentioned Latin American countries are banned and persecuted for not accepting political dictates by the clergy.
Additional considerations, such as Iran's extremely controversial nuclear program and involvement in foreign acts of terror and despotism should suffice. In 2005 Brazil rejected nuclear cooperation with Iran via Venezuela, stating that "Brazil is not interested in cooperating with countries that do not follow international treaties," according to Andrei Khalip, in "Brazil Wary on Nuclear Cooperation with Venezuela," Reuters, May 23, 2005.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives this Monday to New York to participate in the UN's General Assembly. Once more, his speech will be provocative. Taking advantage of his position as a head of state he will probably use the stage (for the seventh consecutive time) to once again deny the existence of the Holocaust, while at the same time inciting support to finish Hitler's job by destroying the state of Israel. And while I do not support all of the actions taken by the current Israeli government toward the Palestinians, the threat posed by the Iranian regime of terror and disgrace leads me to stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity with Israel.
To spread and glorify the words and actions by extremists like Ahmadinejad only prevents any sort of peaceful solution, and to see these governments, especially from my own birthplace in Latin America, befriending him, frankly, confuses me.