CRS Report VI: Iran and Latin America and Africa

November 1, 2016

The following are excerpts from a recently published report by Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, on Iran’s foreign and defense policies.

 

Latin America

Some U.S. officials and some in Congress have expressed concerns about Iran’s relations with leaders in Latin America that share Iran’s distrust of the United States. Some experts and U.S. officials have asserted that Iran has sought to position IRGC-QF operatives and Hezbollah members in Latin America to potentially carry out terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in the region or even in the United States itself. Some U.S. officials have asserted that Iran and Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America include money laundering and trafficking in drugs and counterfeit goods. These concerns were heightened during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005- 2013), who made repeated, high-profile visits to the region in an effort to circumvent U.S. sanctions and gain support for his criticisms of U.S. policies. However, few of the economic agreements that Ahmadinejad announced with Latin American countries were implemented, by all accounts.

President Rouhani has generally expressed only modest interest in further expanding ties in Latin America, perhaps in part because Latin America continues to account for less than 6% of Iran’s total imports. He made his first visit to the region in September 2016 – three years into his presidency - in the course of traveling to the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York. He went to several of the countries that Foreign Minister Zarif did when Zarif met with leaders in Cuba, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela in August 2016—the countries in that region that Ahmadinejad visited during his presidency as well. Iran’s officials have stated that the purpose of the visits were to expand economic relations with Latin American countries now that international sanctions on Iran have been lifted. In the 112th Congress, the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, requiring the Administration to develop within 180 days of enactment a strategy to counter Iran’s influence in Latin America, passed both chambers and was signed on December 28, 2012 (H.R. 3783, P.L. 112-220). The required Administration report was provided to Congress in June 2013; the unclassified portion asserted that “Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning” in part because of U.S. efforts to cause Latin American countries to assess the costs and benefits of closer relations with Iran. Observers have directed particular attention to Iran’s relationship with Venezuela (an OPEC member, as is Iran) because of its avowed anti-U.S. posture, and Argentina, because of the Iran-backed attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets there. Iran’s relations with Cuba have been analyzed by experts in the past, but the U.S. opening to Cuba that began in late 2014 have eased concerns about Cuba-Iran relations. U.S. counterterrorism officials also have stated that the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay is a “nexus” of arms, narcotics and human trafficking, counterfeiting, and other potential funding sources for terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah. Assertions in 2009 by some U.S. officials that Iran was significantly expanding its presence in Nicaragua were disputed by subsequent accounts.

 

Africa

With few exceptions, Sub-Saharan Africa has not generally been a focus of Iranian foreign policy—perhaps because of the relatively small size of most African economies and the limited influence of African countries on multilateral efforts to address international concerns about Iran’s policies. Former President Ahmadinejad tried to build ties to some African countries, both Christian and Muslim dominated, and the outreach was reciprocated by Senegal, Comoros, and Djibouti, in addition to Iran’s longer-standing relationship with Sudan. However, most African countries apparently did not want to risk their economic and political relationships with the United States by broadening relations with Iran. Few of the announced economic agreements between Iran and African countries were implemented, although Iran did establish an auto production plant in Senegal capable of producing 5,000 vehicles annually.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Africa are Sunni, and Muslim-inhabited African countries have tended to be responsive to financial and diplomatic overtures from Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia. Amid the Saudi-Iran dispute in January 2016 over the Nimr execution, several African countries broke relations with Iran outright, including Djibouti, Comoros, and Somalia, as well as Sudan. Senegal has publicly supported the Saudi-led military effort against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

Rouhani has made few statements on relations with countries in Africa and has apparently not made the continent a priority. However, the sanctions relief provided by the JCPOA could produce expanded economic ties between Iran and African countries. The increase in activity by Islamic State and Al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni extremist movements in Africa could cause Iran to increase its focus on politics and security issues in the region, and Iran is positioned to intervene more actively if it chooses to do so. The IRGC-QF has long operated in some countries in Africa (including Sudan, Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya), in part to secure arms-supply routes for proIranian movements in the Middle East but also to be positioned to act against U.S. or allied interests, to support friendly governments or factions, and act against Sunni extremist movements. In May 2013, a court in Kenya found two Iranian men guilty of planning to carry out bombings in Kenya, apparently against Israeli targets. In September 2014, Kenya detained two Iranian men on suspicion of intent to carry out a terrorist attack there. In 2011, Senegal, even though it was a focus of Ahmadinejad’s outreach, temporarily broke relations with Iran after accusing it of arming rebels in Senegal’s Casamance region.

Click here for the full report.