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Iran riding the tide of Latin America’s “Pink Wave”

Aug 1, 2022 | Oved Lobel

Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro meets Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in 2016
Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro meets Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in 2016

With the 28th anniversary of the bombing of AMIA Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires and Alas Chiricanas Flight 901–both conducted by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Lebanese branch Hezbollah to kill Jews–having just passed, it’s a good time to take stock of political developments in Latin America and their implications for Iran’s regional presence.

Although Israel has effectively neutralised Iran’s global terrorism apparatus for the time being, the victims of the AMIA bombing have seen no justice. In Argentina, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is back in power, this time as Vice President under President Alberto Fernandez, who reportedly mooted reversing Argentina’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group. The Government also supports Cuba and its allies and clients like Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, and is reestablishing relations with Venezuela’s regime.

Kirchner is infamous for her close relationship with Iran and alleged involvement in thwarting investigations into the AMIA bombing, including the still unresolved death of Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 2015. Recently, her Government has once again been running interference for IRGC operations, denying that there was any link between the Venezuelan-Iranian ‘aeroterror’ flight recently grounded in the country and the IRGC-Quds Force despite Paraguay’s intelligence chief’s statement to the contrary. According to Argentine lawmaker Gerardo Milman, those aboard were planning attacks, and Argentina’s Government is now aligned with “the Caracas-Tehran-Moscow regime”.

Pink Wave

“[Former IRGC commander Qassem] Soleimani was the architect of the defeat of ISIS,” declared Colombia’s president-elect Gustavo Petro in January 2020, condemning his assassination and asserting that “The US only strengthens the worst of the Middle East.” He blames Israel for the brutal suppression of Communist insurgents and individuals in the country during the Cold War and has said, “The state of Israel discriminates against Palestinians like the Nazis discriminate against Jews.” Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, is part of a ‘pink wave’ sweeping the region, one which may have dire consequences for Israel and the US due to, among other things, their support for the IRGC and Hezbollah.

Colombia was one of very few countries in South America to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and was previously among the staunchest security allies of the US and Israel, all of which is now in question. Honduras, which had also designated Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and was one of the few countries to move its embassy to Jerusalem, also has new leadership, including a Palestinian Vice President, Salvador Nasralla, who has a less-than-stellar record on Israel and antisemitism. Brazil, despite its right-wing government and seemingly close relations with Israel and the US, refused to designate Hezbollah despite years of pledging to do so.

Then there is Chile’s new President, Gabriel Boric, a long-standing and virulently anti-Israel leftist who has openly blamed the local Jewish community for Israeli policies. Chile has the largest Palestinian community outside the Middle East, and Daniel Jadue, an openly antisemitic Palestinian Communist and presidential candidate, will also have more sway under Boric.

Peru, too, has fallen to the Marxists with the election of President Pedro Castillo, who some have accused of being a mere front man for the notorious pro-Cuban Vladimir Cerrón, himself seemingly an antisemite. Peru’s Prime Minister Aníbal Torres recently praised Hitler for his domestic development of Germany, citing him as a role model for improving Peru’s roads. According to Peru’s Jewish Association, this is not the first time Peruvian politicians have made such remarks. Bolivia, meanwhile, is once again under the control of Evo Morales via his front man President Luis Arce, bringing the country back into Iran’s orbit, while Nicaragua never left.

In the north, Mexico’s Government remains supportive of Venezuela’s regime and its dictatorial partners in Cuba and Nicaragua. And in the south, there are Chile and Argentina.

“Cubazuela” and Iran’s regional gambit

As I have written previously, Cuba and its client state Venezuela, colonised by Castro via Hugo Chavez in the late 1990s,  are the lynchpin of IRGC activity and influence across South America. “Cubazuela”, as this relationship has been dubbed, is in essence a fully-fledged member of Iran’s “axis of resistance”. Iran and Venezuela recently signed a 20-year cooperation agreement, covering everything from energy and sanctions-busting to defence, and Venezuela reportedly gave Iran one million hectares of agricultural land inside the country, allegedly for crop cultivation.

While the threat from IRGC terrorism is unlikely to change due to the pink wave, the IRGC’s ability to transpose its capabilities from the Persian Gulf to the Caribbean and broader region very well may. As all surrounding countries normalise their relationship with Cubazuela, the space for Iran to begin cloning its Middle Eastern capabilities right next to the US grows.

The first alarm bell was Iran’s attempt to transfer seven Peykaap IRGC high-speed missile boats across the Atlantic, although thankfully the ships were diverted. However, IRGC drones and munitions are already in Venezuela, and IRGC operatives actually serve in Cubazuela’s security services. There is no doubt that Iran wishes to eventually establish the full array of asymmetric capabilities it possesses, from ballistic and cruise missiles to drones, mines and Peykaap swarms, in the region to allow it to threaten the US navy in its own backyard.

The ultimate nightmare, of course, would be a future transfer of Iranian ballistic missiles topped with nuclear warheads to Venezuela, giving them the reach to threaten the US mainland even without intercontinental ballistic missiles. Such a Cubazuelan missile crisis is entirely in the realm of possibility if Iran is allowed to build a nuclear arsenal and must be avoided at all costs.

The current wave of left-wing governments sweeping Latin America bodes extremely ill for the Jewish citizens of these countries as well as for both the US and Israel politically and security-wise. Reducing Venezuela’s isolation automatically translates into more Iranian power on the continent. Even if the terrorism threat can be kept in check, the regional criminal activities of the IRGC network will likely increase, bringing in more funds to be poured back into military capabilities that will increasingly inch their way closer to the US mainland.

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