Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently concluded his Latin America tour which intended to widen Tehran’s opportunities within the region. Zarif started his tour by visiting Venezuela, one of Iran’s most important partners in the region. Zarif later visited Cuba and Bolivia where he attended the inauguration of Bolivian President-elect, Luis Arce. The tour occurred against the backdrop of crippling US sanctions on Iran and escalating US sanctions on Venezuelan oil and Cuban products. Iran has a history of attempting to expand its influence in America’s soft underbelly with countries that share similar antagonistic relations with Washington. Therefore, Zarif’s visit to Latin America reflects Iran’s commitment to widening bilateral alliances and challenging Washington’s interests in the region.
Iran’s engagement with Venezuela goes back to the 1960s as both countries were founding members of OPEC. After the late Hugo Chavez’s election victory in 1998, Iranian cooperation with Venezuela flourished and the friendship between Chavez and former Iranian President Ahmadinejad helped both countries to deepen their interactions. Zarif started his recent Latin America tour arriving in Venezuela where he met President Nicolas Maduro, Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza. They discussed various issues to strengthen bilateral ties between Caracas and Tehran. During the visit, Zarif reiterated Tehran’s strong support and ongoing military and economic cooperation. Earlier this year, Maduro turned to Iran to restart an aging refinery to prevent the country running out of gasoline. Reports indicate that Iran delivered refining materials to Venezuela and sent oil tankers amid a fuel shortage in the country. US sanctions have made it difficult for the Venezuelan government to import oil or parts to upgrade its aging oil industry. In exchange for Iran’s help, Maduro sent gold bars to Iran and it is reported that gold worth approximately $500 million was transferred to Tehran. However, there are several factors which have limited Tehran’s commitment to Caracas, such as its financial constraints and domestic problems. Despite these limitations, Tehran recently opened a COVID-19 proof supermarket in Caracas, which led to anger within Iran but indicated Iranian attempts to explore new areas of cooperation with the Venezuelan government. A company affiliated with Iran’s Ministry of Defence opened the supermarket, stacking it with Iranian products.
Zarif later visited Havana where he met high-ranking Cuban officials and also held a video conference discussion with Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel who reiterated Havana’s opposition to Washington’s sanctions on Iran. Both countries plan to improve bilateral cooperation particularly in the energy, biotechnology, and nanotechnology sectors, and also indicated their readiness to collaborate on developing a COVID-19 vaccine. Last year an MoU was signed between Cuba’s Finlay Institute of Vaccines and Iran’s Pasteur Institute along with agreements to expand collaboration in various economic and health sectors. Despite ideological incompatibilities, Iran-Cuba relations have evolved because of their mutual hostility towards the United States.
Zarif visited Bolivia during the last leg of his Latin America tour. He attended Bolivian President Luis Arce’s swearing-in ceremony and reiterated Iran’s intent to boost bilateral ties. Luis Arce aims to restore ties with Iran after some tensions in the relationship between the two countries during the period of the interim government led by former President Jeanine Anez. Iran was an important ally for Evo Morales who resigned amid the political turmoil following his re-election last year. Iran financed an anti-imperialist military school in Bolivia which the interim government closed down. Bolivia and Iran had earlier planned to cooperate on lithium exploration; however, later Morales chose a Chinese consortium for the $2.3 billion lithium project.
The leftist political landscape in many Latin American countries has enabled Iran to improve its ties and closely engage with the region. Iran’s commitment to several economic projects in the region has waned due to its plummeting economy and its sponsorship of proxy groups in the Middle East which has drained much of its finances. This has invariably impacted Iranian investments in Latin America. However, Iran’s exports to the region remain minimal in comparison to its investments and economic relations with its Asian partners. Also, Iran faces criticism over Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America particularly in countries such as Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil.