Hemispheric Forum: Iran and the Americas
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15 Mar 2012

The Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies hosted a forum on the topic of “Iran and the Americas” on Tuesday, March 13. The panel comprised Steve Johnson, Director of the Americas Program at CSIS; Judith S. Yaphe, Distinguished Research Fellow for the Middle East at INSS; Douglas Farah, Adjunct Fellow of the Americas Program at CSIS; and CHDS Assistant Professor Celina Realuyo. Professor Howard Wiarda, CHDS Associate Director for Research and Publications, served as moderator. The panel members discussed Iran’s new role and rising influence in Latin America. The discussion grew out of a CSIS publication, Iran’s Influence in the Americas, authored by Mr. Johnson and sponsored by CHDS.

Dr. Wiarda introduced the topic and provided context for the discussion. His points included the rise of other non-traditional powers in Latin America—China, Russia, India, now Iran. He also detailed how declining US interest and presence in the region creates a vacuum, and opportunities for new efforts by Latin American nations to diversify their foreign relations. Dr. Wiarda remarked on the residual sympathy for the 1979 Iranian Revolution as (a) finding “it’s own” way, and (b) defying the United States. Finally, he introduced the idea that the US perception, in light of 9/11, is that Iran is not a benign actor in Latin America and seeks alliances with our enemies.

Mr. Johnson then summarized the main findings of the report, which concluded that Iran has both strengths and weaknesses in dealing with Latin America; Iran has influence in some countries but has not really penetrated the area; and Iran is hostile to the US but does not so far constitute a serious threat to US interests. The report’s recommendations for US policymakers are as follows: Don’t underestimate Iran’s capacity for provocation, but don’t risk credibility or standing but don’t risk credibility or strained ties with the hemisphere by exaggerating Iran’s influence; and, the US needs to improve its intelligence on Iran, meanwhile repairing its relations with the hemisphere.

Dr. Yaphe approached Iran from the perspective of an area specialist. She emphasized Iran’s history, its sense of itself (like the US) as a special nation, and that Iran’s goals are mainly regional (the Middle East), not global. Iran believes it is important, that its 1979 Revolution was special, and that it has a message to convey to the rest of the world. At the same time Iran is limited in the projection of its strength or message. Its main goal is survival of the regime and assurances that the US is not intent on regime change.

Mr. Farah was less sanguine about Iran’s goals and intentions. He sees Iran’s influence through a darker lens, due to its opaque and personality-driven leadership structure, and because of Iran’s relationships with what he sees as the increasingly criminalized “Bolivarian” states. While suspicious of Iran, he agrees with the main conclusions of the report—that Iran currently is not a major threat in Latin America.

Prof. Realuyo emphasized overall US policy. She spoke of the economic “carrots” that Iran offers to Latin America and called on the US to increase its own economic relations, mainly in the form of trade and investments, with the hemisphere. She called for a whole-of-government approach—diplomatic, military, economic, information—to counter Iran’s influence. She also noted Iran’s use of its petroleum to counter sanctions placed upon it by the international community, and as a money-lending device.