Iran expands its military presence in South America
Aug 3, 2023 | Oved Lobel
Approximately one year ago, I warned that the rise or return to power of left-wing governments across Latin America would lead to an expansion of Iran’s military presence on the continent, noting that “Iran wishes to eventually establish the full array of asymmetric capabilities it possesses… in the region.”
Bolivia, which moved back into Iran’s orbit in 2020, reportedly inked a memorandum of understanding on defence and security with Iran following the Bolivian Defence Minister’s visit to the country on July 20 that may result in the delivery of Iranian drones to the country. Iran’s Defence Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani declared the defence agreement with Bolivia “has the potential to serve as a pioneering model for other nations in South America.”
This would make Bolivia at least the second South American country, after Venezuela – wholly controlled by Cuba, which has been the fulcrum of Iran’s regional presence since 1998 – to host Iranian military capabilities. It’s unlikely to be the last.
Reports and video footage also recently emerged indicating that Venezuela has somehow received and is employing Iranian fast-attack boats equipped with Iranian cruise missiles. Iran controversially tried to deliver such boats in 2021 to Venezuela, and it seems it eventually succeeded.
Cuba and Nicaragua are almost certainly next on the list to expand security cooperation with Iran. Given Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s tour of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua last month, nobody should be surprised if reports soon emerge of Iranian drones, missiles and other capabilities turning up in these countries. Leaked documents, apparently based on CIA signals intelligence, suggest that Iran and Nicaragua began discussing such military cooperation in February during the Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit.
Brazil, too, under leftist and staunchly anti-American President Lula da Silva, is likely to begin deepening cooperation with Iran. In late February, two Iranian warships were allowed to dock in Rio de Janeiro despite US pressure, and Iran reportedly plans to send a large delegation to Brazil in a month.
How quickly Iran can proliferate its presence and capabilities across South America will depend primarily on whether the US is willing and able to apply effective diplomatic and financial pressure on pro-Iranian governments. Unfortunately, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua – not to mention Iran itself – are already extensively sanctioned, yet continue to increase cooperation. Bolivia has now shown it won’t be deterred by US sanctions regarding Iran, either, while Brazil has openly shown contempt for all US-policy priorities, from Ukraine to Iran, and has ignored US pressure and entreaties.
Thus far, the situation does not look promising, and there is little evidence that the Biden Administration is prepared to make deterring South and Central American military deals with Iran a significant priority.