Iran in America’s Backyard: Raisi’s defiant Latin America tour
Zafar Mehdi- The Iranian president’s visit to Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba sought to challenge Washington’s global hegemony, by stripping it bare in its own backyard.
On 21 June, the US House Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement, and Intelligence Subcommittee conducted a hearing on “countering threats posed by nation-state actors” in Latin America to US homeland security. Congressman and subcommittee chair August Pfluger referred to “threats” posed by China, Russia, and Iran to US homeland security within Latin America, often referred to as “America’s backyard.”
During the recent docking of an Iranian navy flotilla in Brazil’s port city of Rio de Janeiro, Congressman Pfluger expressed concern over what he said was Iran’s intention “to assert its power in the region.” The flotilla’s voyage, which spanned the world despite facing sanctions, was seen as a remarkable demonstration of Iran’s military prowess.
Pfluger’s apprehension, though not explicitly stated, was triggered by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s highly publicized tour of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, marking the first visit by an Iranian president to the region in over seven years.
Iranian influence in Latin America
As Raisi was busy signing dozens of cooperation agreements with his Latin American counterparts, Maria Elvira Salazar, the chairperson of the US House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, told Fox News that the Iranian president’s trip to the region underscored the failure of the Biden administration’s policy on Latin America, which not too long ago used to be America’s fortress.
“We must repair our relationships with our friends in the region so that we can form a united front against the countries that invite the Islamic Republic’s terrorist regime into our hemisphere,” Salazar stressed.
White House spokesperson John Kirby tried to put a brave, nonchalant spin on things. Asked by reporters about Raisi’s trip to the three Latin American countries and “how the US might be countering whatever he is trying to achieve there,” he shrugged:
“We don’t ask countries in this hemisphere or any other to choose who they’re going to associate with or who they’re going to talk to or who they’re going to allow to visit,” Kirby said, dodging the question. “That’s for them to speak to. We’re focused on our own national security interest in the region.”
It was a poor attempt to save face over the effusive reception the Iranian president received south of the border – the US has, after all, been deeply engaged in countering Iranian influence in Latin America for many years. Sure enough, when prodded further on whether the US government was “concerned” over expanded cooperation between Iran and the three US-sanctioned Latin American countries, Kirby dropped his guard:
“I mean, look, I can’t speak to the agenda or what he’s doing or who he’s going to meet with. Are we concerned about Iran’s destabilizing behavior? You bet we are. And we – and we have and will continue to take steps to mitigate that behaviour.”
Reactions also came from pro-Israel lobby groups in the US, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which described Tehran’s influence in the region as “destructive.”
Raisi’s trip as a political message
Speaking to reporters in Tehran upon his return from the five-day trip, Raisi described Latin America as a “strategic region” with an abundance of natural resources and educated people who he said have bravely resisted “arrogant powers” and the “unjust world order” for years.
He also signed 35 cooperation agreements and memoranda of understanding between Iran and the three Latin American countries in the fields of energy, industry, mining, and others.
The Iranian president’s power-packed speeches and media interviews in all three countries revolved around the themes of “circumventing US sanctions,” “boosting cooperation between independent countries, “ending US hegemony,” and establishing “a new world order.”
“Relations between Iran and Venezuela are not normal diplomatic ties. They are strategic,” Raisi said in Caracas after meeting his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro, adding that the two countries have “common enemies that do not wish us to live independently,” a clear reference to the US.
The two sides agreed to boost their annual trade from $3 billion to $20 billion, in two phases, in line with the 20-year cooperation pact signed during Maduro’s visit to Tehran in June last year.
Raisi’s maiden visit to Caracas came as exports of Venezuelan oil continue to surge amid the weakening of US sanctions, with Iran playing a key role in keeping the country’s refineries afloat.
In a symbolic but significant move, Maduro announced a plan to install a bust of Iran’s famed military general, Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated in a US drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport in January 2020, at the final resting place of Venezuela’s legendary independence leader Simon Bolivar.
‘Yankee go home’
On the second leg of Raisi’s three-nation tour in Nicaragua, the slain Iranian military commander continued to loom large. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega showered lavish praise on Soleimani, railing against his assassination by “Yankee imperialism.”
“We pay homage together with our heroes and martyrs to all the heroes and martyrs of Iran, in particular to General Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated by Yankee imperialism when he was fighting against terrorism,” Ortega said.
Iran’s president, for his part, said Washington has sought to “paralyze our people with threats and sanctions” but has failed, and slammed US sanctions against the two “independent countries.”
“Cooperation between Latin American countries and other independent countries across regions can forge unity that can help neutralize sanctions and increase the capacities (of countries),” Raisi noted, affirming that the Islamic Republic has “turned threats and sanctions into opportunities.”
On the final leg of his Latin American tour, Iran’s president and the accompanying Iranian delegation traveled to Cuba, another country suffering under decades of US economic siege, where he held extensive talks with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who vowed to ramp up cooperation with Iran.
“When the president of Iran comes to our country under these conditions of sanctions against the nation of Cuba, it strengthens our faith and belief in Iran,” Diaz-Canel said, pointing to the spirit of camaraderie between the two sanctions-hit countries.
“Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Iran are among the countries that have heroically confronted sanctions, threats, blockades and interference by Yankee imperialism and its allies with a firm resistance,” he hastened to add.
Pertinently, weeks before Raisi’s visit to Havana, Iran, and Cuba were both listed by the Biden administration as countries that it said “are not cooperating fully” in the fight against terrorism.
A shared legacy
Raisi’s trip also illustrated that political solidarity knows no boundaries. While Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez are admired in Iran, and the wider region, Qassem Soleimani has a massive following in Latin America.
The Iranian president’s Latin America tour arguably demonstrates the resilience of countries sanctioned by the US to secure their interests and neutralize attempts to isolate or consign them to oblivion.
The tour came amid the bustling diplomacy drive sweeping West Asia following the rapprochement between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia in a deal brokered by China – Washington’s chief economic rival – as well as the dramatic transition from a unipolar to multipolar world order.
In an interview with Venezuela’s state-run news outlet TeleSUR in Caracas, Raisi said the US used to consider Latin America as its “backyard,” but the region now enjoys sovereignty “thanks to the spirit of people,” while pointing to the “common interests and goals” of Iran and Latin America.
“Iran has preserved its independence for 44 years (since the 1979 revolution), and we did not allow anyone to subdue us. We do not oppress anyone, and we will never accept that anyone oppresses us. Our will is to enjoy economic prosperity and grow.”
“It is a war of wills – the will of the people who want to be independent in the face of a dominant system that wants to subjugate everyone,” he added.
Iran isn’t isolated
These remarks show Raisi’s five-day tour carried a symbolic message – which went beyond the expansion of strategic and economic cooperation between Iran and Latin American countries – to look the ‘Great Satan’ in the eye in its own backyard and announce the new, US-free world order.
The visit carried another powerful message: If the US Navy can station its vessels in the Persian Gulf, 7,000 miles from the US mainland, and establish military bases and fleets in Iran’s neighborhood from Iraq to Bahrain, Iran can also expand its footprint in America’s backyard.
The difference is that the US had to manufacture pretexts for invasions and military interventions: Nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and the War on Terror are but two recent examples. Only now – after decades of false alarms and continuous, destructive conflict – is the US seeing its influence depreciate globally. At the same time, the Iranians are being invited and warmly embraced, exemplified not just in the recent Latin America tour, but on the other side of the world in Indonesia last month.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian who has also been busy on the diplomatic front, tweeted on 18 June:
“Striving for unity and brotherhood between the Muslim Ummah and the oppressed and aware people of the region; It was the same plan that the great hero of the fight against Zionism and terrorism did not sleep for 30 years! Obviously, this plan has enemies. But it is important that the plan is being pursued seriously.”
Far from being isolated, Iran is actively forging important political, trade, and security links with independent and sovereign states across the Global South – which is increasingly reluctant to toe an Atlanticist line. Trade and development deals aside, Raisi’s Latin American tour was designed to show Iran’s highest officials ambling across America’s backyard – far from isolated, defying Washington’s sanctions and diktats, and demonstrating just how much US power has declined.