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Iran's shadow in South America: the ayatollahs' regime's foreign policy in the region

April 22, 2024

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The Conversation

Mario Pereira

Professor of Criminal Law and International Security, University of Navarra

Gabriela Fajardo

D. candidate in Global Society Law, University of Navarra, Spain.

Developments in the Middle East have the international community on alert. Iran understood the April 1 attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus as a blow to its own territory and a violation of its sovereignty.

After several days of threats, Iran used 300 projectiles (170 drones, more than 30 missiles from Wayside Cross and 120 ballistic missiles) to attack Israeli territory for five hours on April 13, 99% of which were intercepted.

These movements in the geopolitical scenario can be felt in geographically distant regions such as Latin America. To interpret this new scenario, it is necessary to understand how Iran is currently positioned in this region.

Its approach to the region is focused on creating ties with states that may be ideologically sympathetic. This is demonstrated by the relationship with Cuba since the end of the first Gulf War, the close relationship with Venezuela, the closeness with the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and with Bolivia since the mandate of Evo Morales.

Iran has seen the leftward shifts in Latin America as an opportunity to acquire new trading partners, increase its influence in the region and carve out an increasingly important space in the U.S. backyard.

The current Iranian Minister of Defense, Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, stressed that "South American countries have a special place in Iran's foreign and defense policy because they are located in a very sensitive area". In this sense, we can highlight two countries core topic: Bolivia and Venezuela.

Bolivia, Argentina and the Triple Border

Bolivia represents the greatest success in subject of Iranian foreign policy in Latin America. Diplomatic relations between these two states date back to 2007. With less than twenty years of friendship, both signed in July 2023 a memorandum of bilateral security and defense cooperation that may pose a threat to stability in the region.

The agreement is aimed at assisting Bolivia in its fight against drug trafficking and to support the state in the surveillance of its borders. The pact includes the sale of material and training of staff military. However, the details of the agreement were not disclosed as they are protected by a confidentiality clause.

The Bolivian Minister of Defense, Edmundo Novillo, described Iran as a scientific, technological, security and defense example "for nations that want to be free", despite the international sanctions in force.

The agreement provides benefits for both parties. Bolivia will receive weapons, improve its cyber operations capabilities and training from staff of the military forces. For its part, Iran would have access to Bolivia's natural resources, including lithium and gas. It would also be strategically positioned in the heart of South America, where its proxy, Hezbollah, has activities in the Triple Border (Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay) and a relationship with the different cartels operating in the region, according to a report of the Wilson Center.

This same report notes that the TBA has for decades been the center of Iranian and Hezbollah activity in Latin America, taking advantage of the large Lebanese and Shiite diaspora communities. According to the late Argentine special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, Hezbollah established its presence in Latin America in the mid-1980s, starting in the TBA, a relatively lawless region.

Argentina and the AMIA case

Two days before the Iranian attack on Israel, the Federal Chamber of Criminal Cassation of Argentina, the highest criminal court in the country, condemned Iran for the 1992 bombings in Argentina against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and in 1994 against the association Israelite Mutual of Argentina (AMIA). This ruling proves that the attacks, carried out by the terrorist group Hezbollah, were committed at the behest of the government of that theocracy.

After the trial in absentia, it was ratified that those attacks constitute a crime against humanity. This implies that the crimes committed are considered imprescriptible and the sentence describes Iran as a terrorist state.

A series of events have resulted in three decades of impunity. The scandals that led to the imprisonment of the judge and prosecutors in the case, the presentation of Interpol (International Criminal Police Organization) red notices against five former Iranian officials and the research against two former presidents, Carlos Menem (1989-99) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-15), torpedoed the process.

These events, as well as the death in strange circumstances of the special prosecutor for the AMIA case, Alberto Nisman, hours before presenting key evidence to the congress in 2015, explain the delay in the conviction of Iran.

Brazil and Operation Trapiche

In November 2023, the Brazilian Federal Police in partnership with the Mossad and the FBI carried out Operation Trapiche, which led to the apprehension of three Brazilian nationals. An international arrest warrant was also issued for Mohamad Khir Abdulmajid (Syrian) and Haissam Houssim Diab (Lebanese), accused of recruiting for Hezbollah in Brazil for terrorist purposes.

Operation Trapiche was carried out at framework in the fight against electronic cigarette smuggling in the TBA. The proceeds of this fraudulent trade were destined to finance illicit activities of the Commercial Affairs Component of Hezbollah's External Security Organization.

Following the events in the Middle East in the last two weeks and Argentina's full support for Israel, Argentina's Security Minister, Patricia Bullrich, has shown her concern for security on the border with Bolivia and has denounced the presence in this country of 700 Iranian members of the Quds forces, a division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

Bullrich believes that Argentina could be subject to retaliation by Iran. The causes of this fear include the recent ruling condemning Iran as a terrorist state for the AMIA case and the advertisement by the president, Javier Milei, of the decision to move the Argentine embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Not to mention the purchase of 26 supersonic F16 aircraft from Denmark, as well as the request to NATO to add Argentina as a "partner global member of the organization.


Bilateral relations between Venezuela and Iran have been fortified through a series of agreements put in place in recent years in response to the economic sanctions faced by both states.

During the visit of the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, to Caracas in June 2023, 25 economic agreements were signed for an approximate value of 3 OOO million dollars. Details were not disclosed.

A year earlier, in June 2022, agreement was established for cooperation over the next 20 years covering science, technology, agriculture, oil and gas, petrochemicals, tourism and culture.

In the same year, Iran signed a contract for 110 million euros to repair and reactivate the El Palito refinery, located in the state of Carabobo and whose production amounts to 146,000 barrels per day. Thus, in spite of the harsh economic sanctions, the start-up of "offshore refineries" increases Venezuela's dependence (also under economic sanctions) on Iranian crude and oil expertise.

Regarding the arms sector, while the memorandum of cooperation with Bolivia was being signed, an Iranian cargo ship allegedly chartered for submit vehicles to Maduro's regime arrived to Venezuelan shores.

A few days later, Iranian fast attack ships and anti-ship missiles were exhibited at the bicentenary celebrations of the Venezuelan Navy. With this, Iran has made it possible for Venezuela to become the first Latin American country to have this technology.

On the eve of the Venezuelan presidential elections scheduled for July, the Iranian regime has supported the persecution and disqualification of opponents of the Maduro regime to the detriment of Barbados' agreement . Indeed, it is in Iran's interest to maintain the status quo in Venezuela, whose regime publicly supports terrorist groups linked to the Ayatollahs' regime.

At final, Iran's interest in maintaining and establishing close cooperative relations in Latin America seeks to create ties of dependence with nations sympathetic to the regime.

While the international community is on alert for the status in the Middle East, Iran, which has been gaining ground in the region through alliances with those governments where the influence of the United States is not desired, is closely observing the stance taken by Latin American countries.