Latin-Persian alliance on the way?

Is the confirmation by Bolivia of a loan of over $250 million from Iran a further sign of a growing alliance between the Islamic Republic and Latin America?

The thin air of La Paz can make first-time visitors feel faint. But the Iranian Minister of Industries and Mining, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, seemed completely at home as he signed an aid accord with President Evo Morales on 30 August. There are no specific demands placed on how Bolivia can use the money but it has been designated ‘development’ aid. It will probably go towards mining and mineral extraction; some believe that the small print of the deal includes details concerning the large uranium deposits located in the Bolivian region of Potosi. But the significance of the agreement really lies in the simple fact that such a deal has been done.

Morales used the press conference as an opportunity to denounce the UN sanctions placed on Iran, measures which are aimed at dissuading the country from developing a nuclear missile. Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is peaceful. In reply to the messages of Bolivian support, Mr Mehrabian replied “the two countries have good and common objectives in the world community”.

Pronouncements of shared ambitions and goals, usually doubling up as a chance to criticise the West are common when Iranians and Latin American leaders meet, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been obsequious in his comments towards Tehran. The BBC reported in 2009 that Venezuela and Iran had been trading and meeting for over five years, and the agreements they had come had been beneficial for the Venezuelan economy. The language has been truly brotherly with Chavez remarking that: “I assured him [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] of our total solidarity as he’s under attack from global capitalism. He thanked me, and sent a fraternal hug to the Venezuelan people.”

Morales underlined the importance of the Caracas-Tehran link in last week’s meeting, announcing his ambition that Iran and Venezuela will join together to end the “unilateralism” of the world powers. And he also highlighted the growing friendliness between La Paz and Tehran by confirming that his Development and Planning Minister, Elba Viviana Caro, will visit Iran at the end of September to thank the Ahmadinejad administration for their backing and monetary aid.

But the movements by Bolivia and Venezuela are eclipsed by the actions of Brazil in fostering goodwill, teamwork and support between Latin America and Iran. Earlier this year the president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, led calls not to approve a new round of economic sanctions on Iran. Although the Security Council voted convincingly in favour of the measures, Brazil, along with the Turkish delegation, faced up to global pressure in offering a hand to Tehran.

And although last month government sources confirmed that Brazil will now accept the Security Council’s decision to impose further sanctions, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim made it clear that this decision did not mean that there had been a change of heart by Brazil, saying again that the government did not agree with the coercive measures.

Brazil has taken up an indisputable place at the global table as the most influential Latin American nation. It is fast becoming a very important country to the rest of the world, particularly in food production. Two weeks ago, The Economist investigated the meteoric rise in farming output in the country, stating that Brazil has no superiors in the export of poultry, sugar cane and ethanol, and only the US is ahead when it comes to exporting soyabeans.

In addition, the newspaper noted that Brazil has as much renewable water by itself (more than 8,000 billion cubic kilometres per year) as the whole continent of Asia. All this means that the Brazilian star is rising and the outgoing president has made sure that the foreign policy side of his star does not necessarily shine on the Western giants. It is now a political giant itself, and the administration believes that Iran is not simply a Western irritant to be dismissed and denounced.

Yet that does not mean that the relationship is problem-free. On 31 July, President Lula offered refuge to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, although that sentence is now under review after international condemnation. Interestingly, officials in Tehran gave the impression that they believed that Lula had simply been mistaken in his offer of asylum and did not have sufficient information on the case rather than rushing to reject Brazil’s actions. Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that: “as far as we know, [President Lula] is a very humane and emotional person…we will let him know about the details of the case.”

But Brazil cannot have its cake and eat it. In playing down the incident, Tehran has underlined the value it places on Brazilian support. If Lula wants to portray Brazil as a nation freely offering refuge to victims of capital sentences and maintain the country’s unique position in the world, he needs to balance his actions carefully. Close interest will be paid to the direction that his successor wants to take the country. Opinion over Iran will be high on the agenda, and, with Venezuela and Bolivia embedding themselves ever deeper with Tehran, the chance to build a strong Latin-Persian alliance may become increasingly alluring.