Whether in the media or in U.S. policy circles, the words “Middle East” and “South America” are rarely mentioned together in a positive light. Reports of Middle Eastern terrorist cells allegedly operating in South America’s Tri-Border region or on Venezuela’s Margarita Island have appeared intermittently in the U.S. press since at least 2003. These reports allege that sleeper cells belonging to Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and a number of other groups are potentially plotting violent attacks throughout the Americas. Never mind that no evidence has yet emerged of terrorist acts or plots hatched by the alleged cells; the rumors of their presence continue to pop up regularly in the U.S. press and in government reports.
The biggest Middle Eastern threat of all to the region — if editorial pages and Congressional hearings are to be believed — is Iran. As calls for tougher action against the Islamic Republic have intensified in Washington, so too have U.S. officials’ warnings about Iran’s dangerous “meddling” in Latin America.
Until recently, policy-makers saw Venezuela as the principal culprit responsible for defending Iran’s interests in the Western Hemisphere. A Pentagon intelligence report leaked to the Washington Times in April even accused Venezuela of harboring operatives from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, though a top military spokesperson later downplayed the accusations and stated that Iran’s relations with Venezuela were “focused in the diplomatic as well as the commercial realm.” But even the country’s commercial relationship is considered suspect to some in Washington. Referring to two of Iran’s main commercial ventures in Venezuela, former Reagan national security official Norman A. Bailey told Congressional members and staff that, according to his sources, “the tractor factory makes weapons, and the cement factory is used for the export of cocaine”, unsubstantiated charges that seem rather absurd to anyone familiar with current reality there.
In 2006, fearing that Venezuela might try to block planned sanctions against Iran, the Bush State Department waged a major campaign to derail the Chavez government’s bid for a U.N. Security Council seat, including attempts to blackmail allies like Chile to try to make them reject Venezuela’s candidacy. After an exhausting 47 rounds of voting in the General Assembly, in which neither Venezuela nor U.S. candidate Guatemala obtained the required two-thirds majority, Venezuela threw in the towel and agreed to a compromise in which Panama was chosen for the seat.
Slightly less than four years later, another U.S. administration is aggressively pursuing sanctions against Iran and continuing to shake its fist at its southern neighbors. Late last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a thinly veiled threat to Latin American governments that might be considering closer relations with Iran. “If people want to flirt with Iran”, she said during a “diplomatic” briefing on Latin America policy, “they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them, and we hope that they will think twice. . . .”
There’s little evidence that the administration’s chest beating has produced tangible results, however. In fact, there is now a bigger Latin American culprit standing in the way of the U.S.’s Iran agenda: Brazil. President Lula da Silva, though friendly to the US, has shrugged off warnings from Secretary Clinton and others and pressed ahead with his plan to revive talks on Iran’s nuclear program. The result: a potentially major diplomatic breakthrough that the administration appears to be eager to ignore. But given its current temporary seat on the Security Council and its potential to lobby other temporary UNSC members, Brazil may turn out to be a bigger obstacle to the US sanctions effort than Venezuela could ever have been.
Without a doubt, the U.S.’s own troubled relations with Iran and the rest of the Middle East have strongly colored U.S. perceptions of Latin America’s relations with that distant region. It is worth asking ourselves what, beyond the heated vitriol, the allegations of invisible terrorist cells and explosive Iranian tractors, is the reality of South America’s relationship with the Middle East?
First of all, it’s not — as conventional wisdom suggests — a relationship that only a small handful of “radical” Latin American governments are interested in pursuing. Since 2005, two major summits between Arab leaders and leaders of all the countries of South America have taken place in Brasilia and Qatar. The majority of South America’s presidents have attended these events and have agreed with their Arab counterparts on increasing region-to-region cooperation and developing common agendas on issues such as the reform of the U.N., the WTO negotiations and poverty reduction policies. As the normally soft-spoken president of Chile Michele Bachelet put it in the 2009 Doha summit: “We must show . . . our peoples that the leaders of South America and the Arab World are walking side by side to build a better world of peace, understanding and progress. . . .”
Why such enthusiasm? Undoubtedly, economic and financial interests play an important role. Over the last ten years, trade with the Middle East has nearly doubled as a proportion of South American GDP. Brazil alone has seen its trade with the Middle East increase from $8 billion to $20 billion in just a few years, according to Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.
But perhaps the most important factor in the deepening relations between the two regions is the notion of ‘South-South’, cooperation whereby developing nations turn to one another to develop trade and technical cooperation, and to break their economic dependence on traditional industrialized powers. Similarly, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries increasingly share a common geopolitical agenda in which the goal is to promote a multi-polar world — not one hegemonic power (nor two or three) but a multiplicity of global actors so as to establish greater balance and fairness in international relations.
It’s a reality that is a little less riveting than terrorist cells and cocaine-producing cement factories, but one reminding us that, at the end of the day, human societies and the states that represent them tend to be rational actors, looking out for their own interests and seeking to build constructive relations with like-minded partners.
Alexander Main is an international relations analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. This article was first published in Foreign Policy and republished by CEPR under a Creative Commons license.