Clinton’s Latin America Trip: Iran’s Return on Soft Power Investment in the Region?
Latin America continues to serve as a battleground in the discussions of sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to the region suggests that this battle continues in earnest. Brazil’s refusal to support sanctions against Iran despite the Clinton visit indicates that Iran has perhaps received a return on its soft power investment in Brazil and other Latin American states.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid her first official visit to Latin America in March 2010. Garnering support for new UN sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program ranked at the top of her agenda during the week of meetings in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Uruguay. Latin America can provide important “swing votes” in the effort to bring Iranian enrichment activities under IAEA regulation because Iran has been working to increase diplomatic and trade ties with Latin America in recent years. Latin America does not currently stand united in its position on Iranian nuclear enrichment and individual countries of the region vary greatly in their political and economic relations with Tehran. The recent history of Iran’s outreach to nations visited by Clinton is detailed below.
Brazil has built an increasingly close relationship with Iran over recent years through trade and energy ties. Both Iran and Brazil possess vast oil and natural gas reserves, providing grounds for bilateral cooperation in the energy sector and overall trade. Brazil is now Iran’s largest Latin American trade partner, with over $1.26 billion dollars in bilateral trade.  This relationship has paved the way for increased political cooperation as well, including tentative public support from Brazil for Iran in the UN nuclear standoff. In February 2010, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva announced that the global community, in its quest for peace, should avoid isolating Iran over its controversial nuclear program: “Peace in the world does not mean isolating someone,” Lula said at a press conference during a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders. During Clinton’s visit in March 2010, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said during a press conference that Brazil does not support sanctions against Iran and “will not simply bow down to the evolving consensus if we do not agree.” On March 9, President Lula de Silva reiterated Brazil’s displeasure with the sanctions, saying that sanctions could lead to war, and asking "who decided that the United States, France, England, China and Russia represent the collective aspirations of our planet, the new geopolitics, the new world order?" Of the countries that Clinton visited, Brazil has the most extensive trade and political relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Argentina was a victim of two terrorist attacks in the 1990s that the Argentine government has accused Iran of supporting. Since that time, Argentina has been an outspoken critic of Iran’s nuclear program and trade between the two countries has suffered. Argentina’s ongoing investigation of the attacks and the outstanding arrest warrants for current Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi and then-Iranian-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani demonstrate that political relations between the two countries have not yet normalized. Of all the countries Clinton visited, Argentina has shown the most support for increasing pressure against Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. In 2008, after voting in favor of further sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, Deputy Foreign Minister Roberto Garcia Moritan said Argentina believes "all countries must subject their nuclear facilities to IAEA monitoring and comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." Despite its differences with the Islamic Republic, Argentina’s trade with Iran grew to $1.2 billion by December 2009, according to recent data published by the International Monetary Fund.
Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Uruguay have not traditionally had major trade or political relations with Iran. Chile and Iran do enjoy good trade relations, and Chile has been an important contributor to Iran’s recent increase in trade relations with Latin America. Iranian oil exports are a major component of that trade. In October 2009, however, due to increasing UN pressure against the Iranian nuclear program, Enap – a major Chilean oil company – announced it would divest its stake in Iran’s Mehr oil block and exit the country.
Uruguay and Iran have good bilateral trade relations, and Uruguay has been an important contributor to Iran’s recent increase in trade relations with Latin America. Uruguay is a major supplier of rice, wool, skins, and occasionally beef to Iranian markets. Uruguay sells $100 million in rice to Iran annually.
In recent years, Iran has increased its bilateral trade and political cooperation with Latin America as a whole, just as international pressure over its nuclear enrichment activities has increased. As the UN negotiates a new round of sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program, Secretary Clinton’s first official visit to Latin America was in large part an effort to demonstrate US interest in creating united support to pressure Iran to bring its nuclear activities under IAEA regulations. Clinton found the most support in this endeavor from Argentina, which shares American concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s role in the international community. Brazil, Iran’s largest trading partner in Latin America, was less supportive of sanctions and did not agree to support UN measures against Iran. As demonstrated by the mixed responses Clinton found in her consultations over Iranian enrichment activities, Latin America does not currently form a united front in its attitude toward Iran and its nuclear program.
Report by Daniel Santoro: “Government May Back Sanctions Against Iranian Nuclear Program," Clarin, October 29, 2006.