The topic that dominated the discussion (the panel consisted of Brian Fonseca of FIU, Julio Cirino of Fundacion Pensar, and was moderated by Hillel Fradkin) was the reasons for Iran's multi-billion dollar investment in a region where it has no historic ties, little economic interest and only a very small base of Shite Muslims to influence.
I explored some of these economic issues in paper I did last year for the International Assessment and Strategy Center but did not really answer the question asked yesterday, which is fundamental to our understanding of the dynamics in Latin America.
The enigma is what common ground could there be between a leftist, populist leader like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, whose broad vision is a somewhat ill-defined, unified Latin America as Simon Bolivar dreamt of, to a radically conservative religious leader who theistic vision seems to be a world controlled by Sharia law, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.
The answer suggested seemed to be two-fold: a shared hatred of the United States and a desire to make Washington as nervous as possible about as many issues as possible; and a shared view of each other's regimes as revolutionary and fighting broadly for justice or a more just world order.
What is clear is that Iran sees a reason to do this, in a rather methodical and pre-meditated fashion. Given the financial and political strains in Iran, it must be important because it has continued uninterrupted for the past five years, at least. And if it is important to Iran, then it should be important to the United States.
It is a limited range of self-interest that binds the two (Iran's influence in the rest of Latin America stems directly from pressure by Chavez for his allies-Evo Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador and Ortega in Nicaragua-to play footsie with the Iranians), but a dangerous set of circumstances.
But it also provides the hope that the impact of the self-interested mutual admiration will be limited in its impact. Many of the promised Iranian projects fail to materialize, and, while their emphasis on "soft power" in the region looks good from afar, it is not necessarily effective on the ground, where more announcements than projects occur.
Though both nations produce oil and should be awash in funds, both Venezuela and Iran are significantly over-extended financially, lessing their ability to offer their potential one of the few things that matter--cash or its equivalent in meaningful projects.
My concern is that Iran, which has little real interest in Latin America in a substantive way, is positioning its favorite quasi-state actor, Hezbollah, around the region in order to be prepared to strike the United States, should it deem such a strike necessary or desirable.
An overlap between the FARC and Hezbollah would provide more in terms of training and capacity enhancement, to the FARC. It is hard to imagine that, on the ground, unregenerate Marxists and committed Islamists, would get along very well.
But if there is anything I have learned in my years in the field, it is that the unexpected or seemingly irrational happens as a matter of course. What we project from our own experience as unlikely has little relationship to the reality that occurs.
The other worrisome factor, as I have written before, is Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, who has a history of ties to terrorist organizations (Red Brigade etc.) and of facilitating terrorist activities and contacts.
He also controls a key entry point into the Central American pipeline that carries drugs, money, weapons, illegal immigrants, stolen cars and much more. If someone wanted to move across our borders, that is the pipeline I would want to use, and few would ask any questions.
So, in the irrational and contradictory world in which we live, the populist left of Chavez and the autocratice theism of Iran can find common ground, at least for a while. And we would be well served to pay more attention to that.
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