On 11th January, Iran’s naval commander announced[i] that Iran would station warships in the Panama Canal before the end of 2023. Further exasperating concerns, according to documents[ii] published recently by the Brazilian navy, two Iranian warships have been granted permission to dock in Brazil, with experts speculating[iii] that the vessels could reach the Panama Canal as early as mid-February. The presence of Iranian warships in the Panama Canal threatens not only Western security but the integrity of one of the world’s key trade routes.
The gradual permeation of Iranian influence across Latin America over the past 40 years is a significant and distressing phenomenon which has paved the way for this recent strategic play by Tehran. In the context of Iran’s presence in Latin America, attention tends to be concentrated toward Iran’s criminal[iv] and terrorist networks[v] within the region via Hezbollah operations. The more subtle and covert elements of the Iranian expansion into Latin America is a comparatively overlooked subject, despite being the catalytic force behind the success of such criminal operations.
Recent developments prove that ideological influence can manifest into a very tangible security threat. In order to effectively tackle this challenge, the UK must recognise and address these strategies to prevent the regime’s further military expansion into the Western Hemisphere.
Unity through Ideology
Since the birth of the regime in 1979, Iran has attempted to infiltrate the cultural and political landscape of Latin America through a facade of cultural exchanges.[vi] The regime has implemented a similar strategy in both Iraq[vii] and Syria[viii], striving to establish an ‘axis of resistance’[ix] against the UK and its allies.
The ‘Pink Tide’[x] of socialist parties which swept Latin America at the start of the 21st century provided Iran with the necessary political landscape to solidify its ideological presence. During this period, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad established a close relationship with socialist Venezuelan Hugo Chavez, whose Bolivarian[xi] ideology aligned well with the values presented by the Iranian regime. With resistance and anti-hegemony being key constituents of the Bolivarian socialist ethos, Chavez welcomed Revolutionary Iran’s anti-imperialist rhetoric. Both ideologies targeted the US and Israel as global antagonists and oppressors.
It was through this partnership that Iran developed alliances with other anti-American leaders, specifically Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales. In 2008, Iran became a member of the Bolivian Alliance for the People of our America (ALBA[xii]), the brainchild of Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, as an ‘observer state[xiii],’ further solidifying its role within the anti-American axis in Latin America.
The ideological seeds sown during this period came into fruition in the post-Chavez era in the form of sustained economic cooperation. Current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has enacted a continued policy of cooperation with Iran, culminating in the 20-year agreement[xiv] signed by the two countries in early 2022. Iran has signed similar economic cooperation agreements with Cuba[xv], Nicaragua[xvi], and the new leftist Bolivian[xvii] government.
The expansion of Iranian influence in Latin America moves far beyond the political realm. Over the past few decades, the Iranian regime has funded various educational, religious[xviii] and cultural centres[xix] the region to promote Iranian culture and language. The regime has utilised this infrastructure to spread its ideology and recruit[xx] local populations into its terrorist and narco-crime networks.
The regime has established an online learning resource ‘IslamOriente’[xxi] which provides Spanish-language information on Shia Islam. Similarly, the regime has established the Spanish-language news network HispanTV.[xxii] Recent reports on Iran’s naval expansion into the Panama Canal have emphasised the kinship between Latin America and Iran, branding the UK and US as enemies of the ‘anti-hegemonic ideology’ that Iran represents.[xxiii] This Iranian-produced news channel currently reaches 17 countries in the region[xxiv], providing the regime with an accessible transnational platform from which to disseminate misinformation to local populations.
When viewed in isolation, these methods to perpetuate the spread of Iranian culture into Latin American civil society may appear insignificant. However, when considered holistically, it is clear that the regime is enacting a hydra-like approach to effectively infiltrate the Latin American collective psyche and rally local support.
Latin America and Iran in 2023
In recent years, the political landscape in Latin America has once again sustained a notable shift[xxv] toward the left. Alongside this, recent public surveys[xxvi] reveal a general sense of disillusionment amongst Latin American citizens toward the United States, as well as a rise in anti-liberal attitudes in the region. This sentiment has been brought about[xxvii] by ongoing economic struggles and a dissatisfaction with the liberal policies of recent pro-American governments. This ‘new Pink Tide’[xxviii] could provide Iran with ample opportunity to expand its network beyond its traditional regional allies and target countries who have recently re-elected leftist governments, such as Brazil[xxix], Chile[xxx] and Colombia[xxxi]. By monopolising upon this shift, Iran would be able to further inject itself into the political and cultural landscape of Latin America in 2023.
Iran’s grasp on the region continues to hinge upon the strategic cooperation of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, who are currently subject to broad international sanctions. Economic cooperation between Iran and these nations is set to become even more prevalent in 2023, following the collapse of the talks regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and key Western powers. Iran is likely to turn increasingly[xxxii] toward Venezuela and other anti-American allies in the region to help keep its economy afloat and defy Western sanctions.
The regime’s successful use of these economic alliances to circumvent sanctions would have important connotations on the perception and effectiveness of Western sanctions. In light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, and Iran’s cooperation[xxxiii] with Russia, this network of sanction-defying countries could have a similarly negative effect on the success of Western sanctions in the Russian context. Ultimately, the impact of Iran’s presence in Latin America will be felt far beyond the US and UK.
Tackling the Problem
Whilst Latin America tends to be sidelined in UK foreign policy, the UK’s shared interests with the US in preserving democratic and liberal values and challenging the spread of authoritarianism require a greater engagement with the region. The Panama Canal, which accounts for the passage of 5%[xxxiv] of global maritime trade, is a key strategic channel which could be used by the regime to smuggle oil and gas despite international sanctions. Iran establishing a military presence in the canal poses a direct threat to international trade and global markets. This move solidifies Iran’s military expansion into the Western Hemisphere, increasing the proximity of the regime’s threat to the UK. To prevent further expansion, the UK must take steps to curtail Iran’s foothold in Latin America.
In recent decades, the UK has shifted more attention to the region by implementing programmes like the Canning Agenda[xxxv], and signing bilateral trade agreements with nations like Chile[xxxvi] and Brazil[xxxvii]. Whilst these policies are important in the maintenance of formal economic and political alliances within the region, they do little to impact public discourse and hinder the spread of Iran’s anti-Western rhetoric and military presence. At the ideological level, the best solution lies in dismantling the ideological marriage between the regime’s own ideology and Latin American socialism.
One way to go about this is by challenging the regime’s conceptualisation of the US and the West as an antagonistic force. The UK should facilitate this by being more proactive in promoting cultural exchanges with Latin American countries to advance liberal values and challenge the spread of Iranian misinformation and ideology. This could be applied through initiatives aimed at encouraging intellectual and cultural exchanges between the UK and Latin America, such as the Chevening Scholarship Programme[xxxviii] and Plan Ceibal.[xxxix] In light of the growing trend toward socialism, these initiatives should target countries with progressively left-leaning governments, who are particularly vulnerable to Iran’s ideological influence.
This approach should be enacted alongside a more direct effort to dismantle and disrupt expanding Iranian infrastructure within the region. The regime’s use[xl] of cultural, educational and religious centres to implant ideology and expand proxy criminal networks must be suppressed. The UK should further support allied local governments’ efforts[xli] to identify and combat these projects through which the regime currently supplants its influence and limit the expansion of Iran’s internal support network at the civil level. More widely, the UK must learn from the success of Iran’s ideological war waged through the Latin American cultural arena. It is clear through recent developments that, if left unchecked, ideological power will materialise into a very real threat. Moving forward, more attention must be paid to the latent force of ‘soft power.’ The UK and its European allies should similarly apply this lens when navigating and tackling similar ideological campaigns elsewhere across the globe, such as China’s ‘ideological push’[xlii] in Africa, and Vladmir Putin’s ideological discourse[xliii] underpinning Russia’s war in Ukraine.
[i] Oliviera, A. (2023) Iran vows to station warships in the Panama Canal after building ties with Latin American dictators. Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11625703/Iran-vows-station-warships-Panama-canal-building-ties-Latin-American-dictators.html
[ii] Gov.br (2023) Despacho Decisorio MB No 5, DE 13 de janeiro de 2023. Imprensa Nacional. https://www.in.gov.br/web/dou/-/despacho-decisorio-mb-n-5-de-13-de-janeiro-de-2023-458733048
[iii] Al Mayadeen English (2023) Brazil allows Iranian ships to dock amid us concerns over Panama Canal. Al Mayadeen English. https://english.almayadeen.net/news/politics/brazil-allows-iranian-ships-to-dock-amid-us-concerns-over-pa
[iv] Dr. Hamadan Al-Shehri (2022) Iran increasingly turning to Latin America to defy US sanctions. Arab News. https://www.arabnews.com/node/2102776
[v] Levitt, M. (2016) Iran and Hezbollah remain hyperactive in Latin America. The Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/iran-and-hezbollah-remain-hyperactive-latin-america
[vi] Humire, J.M. and Berman, I. (2016) in Iran’s strategic penetration of Latin America. Lanham: Lexington Books, pp. xv-xvi. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=oqDYBAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
[vii] Watkins, J. (2020) Iran in Iraq: Soft power after Soleimani. Middle East Centre LSE. Iran in Iraq: Soft Power after Soleimani | Middle East Centre (lse.ac.uk)
[viii] Akbar, A. (2021) “Iran’s soft power in Syria after the Syrian Civil War,” Mediterranean Politics, pp. 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/13629395.2021.1938856.
[ix] Katz, B. (2018) Axis rising: Iran’s Evolving Regional Strategy and non-state partnerships in the Middle East. CSIS. https://www.csis.org/analysis/axis-rising-irans-evolving-regional-strategy-and-non-state-partnerships-middle-east
[x] Carbayo, L. (2022) ¿Qué fue la marea rosa en América Latina?, LISA News. https://www.lisanews.org/internacional/que-fue-la-marea-rosa-en-america-latina/
[xi] Flores, E. (2017) Mediatizacion politica de Hugo Chavez: ideologia y propaganda de la pensa condervadora latinoamericana. https://repositorio.uchile.cl/handle/2250/150968
[xii] Servicio Nacional de Aduana del Ecuador (2023) Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America (ALBA-TCP). https://www.aduana.gob.ec/alianza-bolivariana-para-los-pueblos-de-nuestra-america-alba-tcp/
[xiii] Steckler, J. Iran’s ideological expansion: Latin America, UANI. https://www.unitedagainstnucleariran.com/ideological-expansion/irans-ideological-expansion-latin-america#:~:text=Since%20the%201979%20Islamic%20Revolution%2C%20Iran%20has%20undertaken,under%20the%20guise%20of%20cultural%20and%20commercial%20exchanges.%E2%80%9D
[xiv] Infobae (2022) El Régimen de Maduro le Cederá a irán 1 millón de hectáreas de tierra de cultivo. Infobae.com. https://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2022/07/26/el-regimen-de-maduro-le-cedera-a-iran-utilizar-1-millon-de-hectareas-de-tierra-de-cultivo/
[xv] Infobae (2023) Los Regímenes de Cuba e Irán ratificaron sus vínculos con la visita a La Habana del Ministro de exteriores persa. Infobae.com. https://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2023/02/05/los-regimenes-de-cuba-e-iran-ratificaron-sus-vinculos-con-la-visita-a-la-habana-del-ministro-de-exteriores-persa/
[xvi] Swissinfo.ch (2023) Nicaragua e Irán Acuerdan Cooperación en diversos Campos. SWI. https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/nicaragua-ir%C3%A1n_nicaragua-e-ir%C3%A1n-acuerdan-cooperaci%C3%B3n-en-diversos-campos/48147202
[xvii] Naghipour, F. (2022) Irán y Bolivia fortalecen la cooperación comercial. Es.irna.ir. https://es.irna.ir/news/84870587/Irán-y-Bolivia-fortalecen-la-cooperación-comercial
[xviii] Emanuele , O. (2022) Iran’s soft-power offensive in Latin America, and how the U.S. can counter it “ Mosaic Magazine. https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/politics-current-affairs/2022/02/irans-soft-power-offensive-in-latin-america-and-how-the-u-s-can-counter-it/
[xix] Dvorakova, T. (2020) How Iran uses cultural centers to expand its influence in Latin America, RFE/RL. Iran News By Radio Farda. https://en.radiofarda.com/a/how-iran-uses-cultural-centers-to-expand-its-influence-in-latin-america/30617121.html
[xx] Florencia, M. (2022) Hezbollah supporters running kids’ scouting groups in Brazil. IranWire. https://iranwire.com/en/features/70326/
[xxi] Islamoriente | El Sitio Más Grande de Informaciones Islámicas en idioma … (2023) Islam Oriente. https://islamoriente.com/
[xxii] HispanTV (2023) ÚLTIMAS Noticias del Mundo, hispantv.com. https://www.hispantv.com/
[xxiii] HispanTV (2023) ‘Armada iraní ha Izado Bandera Nacional en Oeste de Latinoamérica’, HISPANTV.com. https://www.hispantv.com/noticias/defensa/559742/iran-armada-presencia-america-latina
[xxiv] Akbar, A. (2022) “Iran’s soft power in Venezuela,” Third World Quarterly, pp. 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2022.2142553
[xxv] Leiras, S. (2022) Nuevo Giro a la izquierda en América Latina, ¿Qué izquierda?, Latinoamérica 21. https://latinoamerica21.com/es/nuevo-giro-a-la-izquierda-en-america-latina-que-izquierda/
[xxvi] Pew Research (2020) Fewer people in Latin America see the U.S. favorably, Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2018/04/12/fewer-people-in-latin-america-see-the-u-s-favorably-under-trump/
[xxvii] Chafuen, A. (2021) The economic debacle in Latin America, Forbes. Forbes Magazine. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alejandrochafuen/2020/01/19/the-economic-debacle-in-latin-america/?sh=637fec6d5c73
[xxviii] Portafolio (2022) Economía, El Reto Crucial de la Nueva ‘Marea Rosa’ en latinoamérica, Portafolio.co. https://www.portafolio.co/internacional/izquierda-en-latinoamerica-economia-es-el-mayor-reto-de-la-marea-rosa-573669
[xxix] Sader, E. (2022) La Izquierda en Brasil, de un siglo a Otro, PAGINA12. Página|12. https://www.pagina12.com.ar/435612-la-izquierda-en-brasil-de-un-siglo-a-otro
[xxx] Idoeta, P. (2021) Gabriel Boric: Qué significa Su Victoria en chile para la izquierda en América Latina y por qué aún no se habla de una nueva “marea rosa”, BBC News Mundo. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-59748270
[xxxi] Jassir, M.J. (2022) Colombia gira a la izquierda. Infobae.com. https://www.infobae.com/america/colombia/2022/06/19/colombia-gira-a-la-izquierda/
[xxxii] Dr. Hamadan Al-Shehri (2022) Iran increasingly turning to Latin America to defy US sanctions. Arab News. https://www.arabnews.com/node/2102776
[xxxiii] EuroNews (2023) Iran and Russia Link Banks to evade western sanctions, Euronews.com. https://www.euronews.com/2023/02/01/iran-and-russia-link-banks-to-evade-western-sanctions
[xxxiv] The Defence Post (2023). Panama says Iran warships might be allowed through canal. https://www.thedefensepost.com/2023/02/08/iran-warships-panama-canal/
[xxxv] Canning House (2020) The Canning agenda – 10 years on, canninghouse.org. https://www.canninghouse.org/storage/uploads/resources/canning-agenda/Canning_Agenda_10_Years_On.pdf
[xxxvi] Department for International Trade (2019) UK and Chile Sign Continuity Agreement, GOV.UK. GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-and-chile-sign-continuity-agreement
[xxxvii] British Embassy Brasilia (2022) United Kingdom and Brazil sign agreement to avoid double taxation, GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/united-kingdom-and-brazil-sign-agreement-to-avoid-double-taxation#:~:text=The%20DTA%20brings%20about%20important,the%20costs%20of%20doing%20so.
[xxxviii] Chevening (2023) About Us. Chevening.org. https://www.chevening.org/about/
[xxxix] Ceibal (2023) ceibal.edu.uy/es
[xl] Florencia, M. (2022) Hezbollah supporters running kids’ scouting groups in Brazil. IranWire. https://iranwire.com/en/features/70326/
[xli] Pavia, A. and Pelayo, J. (2022) Colombia is tackling the threat of Hezbollah in South America, Al Arabiya English. https://english.alarabiya.net/views/2022/02/08/Colombia-is-tackling-the-threat-of-Hezbollah-in-South-America
[xlii] Sun, Y. (2016) Political Party training: China’s ideological push in Africa?, Brookings. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2016/07/05/political-party-training-chinas-ideological-push-in-africa/
[xliii] Meissner, R. (2022) Ideology matters in unravelling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/ideology-matters-in-unravelling-russias-invasion-of-ukraine-182626