Iran ramps up courtship of Latin America
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
For decades, American foreign policy on Latin America has gone through cycles of neglect and concern. It’s in a cycle of concern again, prompted by an Iranian campaign to make friends and influence people in the American backyard. Washington’s message to Iran’s Latin friends – don’t get too close – does not appear to impress them.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in unusually strong language, sounded the first warning on December 11: “I think if people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them. And we hope that they will think twice.”
President Barack Obama followed up eight days later with a message focused on Venezuela, Iran beachhead in Latin America. Ties with Iran had not served the interests of Venezuela and its people, he said in an interview with a Venezuelan newspaper. “Sooner or later, Venezuela’s people will have to decide what possible advantage there is in having relations with a country that violates fundamental human rights and is isolated from most of the world.”
Since those warnings, Iran’s Latin American friends have made clear that they are not thinking twice, as Mrs. Clinton suggested. Instead, the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ecuador are preparing to play host to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second week of 2012. In another move to poke the “great Satan”, Iran’s label for the United States, in the eye in its own backyard, Iran launched a Spanish-language satellite TV channel, HispanTV, to break the dominance of international broadcasters that are “muzzled by imperialism, hiding the truth and twisting the facts.” So said Iranian Radio and TV executive Mohamed Sarafraz when he launched the new channel on December 21.
There is more than a little irony in that assertion, given that state-run Iranian media are no strangers to hiding the truth and twisting the facts, not to mention that the government imprisons journalists, jams foreign broadcasts, and engages in Internet censorship. The new Iranian channel aims beyond the countries run by anti-American leaders and is meant to convince Latin Americans of “the ideological legitimacy of our (Iranian) system to the world, ” in the words of Ezzatollah Zarghami, head of Iran’s state radio and TV. That’s easier said than done. Latin Americans dissatisfied with news and information from their own countries can turn to the Internet and to international networks already broadcasting to the region in Spanish — Britain’s BBC, TVE of Spain, Germany’s Deutsche Welle, Voice of America and CNN.
Iran’s entry in what Hillary Clinton has called a war of information speaks volumes about Ahmadinejad’s ambition to confront the United States not only in the Middle East but globally. It’s an ambition he shares with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has portrayed himself as the leader of a global “anti-imperialist” alliance since he came to power 13 years ago.
The two have much in common, from shared hostility to the United States to rhetoric so outrageous it beggars belief. Ahmedinejad has called the holocaust “a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim” and he startled an audience in New York in 2007 by insisting there were no homosexuals in Iran. Chavez is given to elaborate theories involving U.S. assassination plots. After news this week that Argentine President Christina Kirchner had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Chavez speculated that the United States might have developed a way to give Latin American leaders cancer. He himself underwent cancer surgery in June.
Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, Dilma Roussef of Brazil and her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva have all battled cancer. Delusional statements aside, Chavez has been the key facilitator for Iran’s attempt to weaken U.S. supremacy in Latin America. Both Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have declared Iran a “strategic ally” and have signed a slew of joint venture deals. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega is a close ally, as are Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Cuba’s Raul Castro. For all of them, Iran’s nuclear program is not an issue: they accept Tehran’s assurances that it is for peaceful purposes.
The United States and its Western allies suspect that Iran is working on nuclear weapons and have imposed successively harsher sanctions to get the theocratic rulers to drop the program. The sanctions, Obama said this month, had succeeded in isolating Iran. They also had an unintended consequence Obama didn’t mention – Iran looking for friends wherever it can find them, from sub-Saharan Africa to America’s backyard. Obama and Clinton have yet to spell out the consequences of flirting with Iran against Washington’s wishes.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)