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How Iran Under Raisi Built Close Ties with Latin America

May 29, 2024
Florencia Montaruli
6 min read
"We are friends in difficult times," Raisi said as soon as he shook hands with Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela
"We are friends in difficult times," Raisi said as soon as he shook hands with Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela

Caracas received Ebrahim Raisi with the typical heat of the tropical summer on June 12, 2023. It was the first time the then-president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, set foot in a Latin American country. 

"We are friends in difficult times," Raisi said as soon as he shook hands with Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela.

Before arriving at his first stop, Venezuela, Raisi had insisted that he hoped his tour would be "a turning point" in his country's foreign relations. During that stay in Caracas, Raisi described the link with President Nicolás Maduro's government as "special" and "strategic."

Relations between Tehran and Caracas have been very close since the late President Hugo Chávez in 2013 and have strengthened in recent years due to the fuel shortage in Venezuela. Soon, Iran became the perfect ally to resolve this energy and economic problem. 

It should be noted that both oil-producing countries and members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are subject to US sanctions that weigh on their economies.

In that sweltering June of 2023, in Venezuela, Raisi oversaw the signing of 25 bilateral economic agreements worth a substantial $3 billion.

The intriguing aspect was the secrecy surrounding the details of these agreements, with only a hint that they were related to petrochemicals, mining, health, and education.

"The level of economic cooperation between Iran and Venezuela has increased to 3 billion dollars," Raisi clarified in Caracas. However, the visit of the Islamic Republic of Iran's representative seemed also to be a "political symbolism."

Since its establishment in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has seen Latin America as fertile ground for the export of its revolution for two reasons.

First, because of the appeal of anti-American ideology, and second, because of the geographic proximity of the entire region to the United States. 

Thus, since 1979 and for more than 40 years, Iran has built government alliances with Latin American countries. At the same time, it has spread its ideology primarily through disinformation.

What began in the early 1980s as an effort to propagate the "ideas of the Revolution" through the creation of "cultural centres" was transformed into a giant machine thanks to Iran's alliances with the authoritarian governments of those countries.

On the other hand, Venezuela celebrated Raisi's visit in 2023 as the opportunity to generate an "invincible alliance" and was encouraged to describe the Islamic nation as one of the "most important emerging powers in the world."

Something similar happened a year ago, in June 2022, when the Venezuelan president visited Tehran in a first approach towards the then brand new president Raisi.

On that occasion, both countries signed agreements, the content of which was never revealed, and where Maduro only limited himself to explaining that "we have important cooperation projects in various fields of interest for both countries."

An extensive report presented in 2023 by the Israel Defence Forces states that "due to its proximity to the United States, Iran uses Venezuela as its base of operations in South America.

Iran delivers weapons to Venezuela by air and sea that are very capable of reaching US territory," and cites as an example the Iranian Mohajer 6 crewless aerial vehicle, which was displayed on several occasions during military parades in Venezuela.

Raisi's next strategic stop in Latin America was in another Caribbean country: Nicaragua. Here, Raisi maintained the same rhetoric, appealing to the "special" relationship between the two countries in the face of American aggression. 

The bond between Iran and Nicaragua was strengthened in recent years by the Sandinista dictator Daniel Ortega, who assured during Raisi's visit that "both countries share signs from God" as a coincidence of the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in February 1979 and the Sandinista Revolution in July of that same year.

"We want to increase and deepen our relations in all political, economic and cultural areas, especially in matters of science and technology," said the Iranian president upon setting foot in Nicaragua.

During his stay in Managua, the president signed at least three memorandums that covered a supposed reinforcement in economic, commercial, and scientific-technical issues. As in Venezuela, the scope of these agreements was never known. 

Days after Raisi's tour, the former Nicaraguan ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Arturo McFields, said in an interview with US media that Iran's real intentions in Nicaragua "were always promises, but zero projects."

Raisi's tour of Latin America ended in 2023 with a visit to the fortress of the international left: Cuba. Havana was hit by a battered post-Covid economy, and its president, Miguel Díaz Canel, received the Iranian president with open arms in a desperate search for economic partners. 

Raisi knew how to take advantage of this need, and although he did not give "anti-United States" speeches in this part of his tour, he did highlight investment opportunities in the energy area. Investments that Cuba was waiting for and that, after Raisi's death, everything seems to indicate that they will remain what was only a wish of the Cuban government.

Bolivia, a Strategic and Military Link

Bolivia is another of the Latin American countries that has developed a close bond with the Islamic Republic of Iran, specifically during the years of Raisi's government.

The relations between the Bolivian government party and the Iranian regime have been very close since the first government of Evo Morales in 2006.

The friendship included opening an Iranian television channel, PressTV, which has since broadcast Muslim propaganda.

In 2023, both countries signed a bilateral agreement through their Defense Ministers. At first, it was only reported that the agreement would help Bolivia fight drug trafficking and strengthen border surveillance. 

However, Iranian Defence Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani later admitted that the pact included personnel training and the sale of specific equipment. 

"In light of Bolivia's critical needs in border defence and the fight against drug trafficking, we will actively establish collaborations in equipment and expertise with that country," Ashtiani told the media last year. The Institute of War Studies (ISW) assumed the Tehran government offered its drones to the Bolivian authorities.

However, the link between Bolivia and Iran is not limited to agreements for using military equipment. Still, suspicions include the delivery of Bolivian passports to Iranian citizens for purposes not yet clarified, and the neighboring government of Argentina was in charge of alerting this situation and currently maintains a maximum alert on the border with Bolivia.

The Minister of Security of Argentina, Patricia Bullrich, highlighted the seriousness of this agreement and pointed out that the most severe fact is the possible presence of Iranian citizens using Bolivian passports, a strategy that Iranians have widely used in Venezuela to be able to infiltrate all of Latin America.

The last encounter between Bolivia and Iran occurred in March of this year during the Forum of Gas Exporting Countries summit in Algeria. 

According to the official report, President Arce and his Iranian counterpart Raisi held a bilateral meeting and signed agreements supposedly guaranteeing cooperation between Bolivia and Iran in sectors such as education, health, agriculture, and telecommunications. 

The first visit by Raisi to Latin America had a heavy "political symbolism" for many analysts, who came to compare Raisi as a "successor of former president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, known for his ultra-conservative extremism and his close ties with Managua, Caracas, and La Havana. 

Did Raisi perhaps want to resume the principles of the Islamic Revolution of exporting ideas to the fertile terrain that Latin America always offered.

The answer, perhaps, is in one of the last phrases with which Ebrahim Raisi referred to his allies in Latin America after being interviewed by the Venezuelan official press: "After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, there was good chemistry between Latin America and Iran to seek independence.

"The Latin American people are also looking for the same route, and there is harmony between our country and Latin America to have those common points and objectives between Iran and this region (...) The Americans have always considered you, Latin America, as their backyard, But thank God, now you have sovereignty."



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