By Hamdan Al-Shehri
March 12, 2021
Brazil has long been an important strategic trade partner for Iran in Latin America, but there has always been more to the relationship than meets the eye. A new report by the Arab News Research and Studies Unit — the second of its “Iran in Latin America” series — examines the ebb and flow of this unlikely association as well as its likely geopolitical drivers.
In addition to political and economic cooperation, Iran has worked to exploit a different kind of influence in Latin America: It instructs its agents, in particular those linked to its Lebanese proxy militia Hezbollah, to carry out terrorist and criminal activities from sanctuaries in the continent. But more about that later.
Relations between Iran and Brazil have passed through several distinct phases in recent decades, sometimes reflecting general shifts in the latter’s foreign policy, at other times resembling an ill-defined relationship based primarily on mutual trade interests.
The dynamic of the relationship has also been influenced by the personalities of successive leaders of both states, their ideological leanings and their perceptions of the West.
For example, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s leftist president from 2003 to 2010, placed a high value on relationship with Iran because he wanted to move the focus of his foreign policy away from the countries of North America and Europe and towards the developing nations of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
This shift was thrown into sharp relief in 2009 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to visit Brazil in more than four decades. Lula reciprocated the visit with a trip to Iran in May the following year to meet Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei after Brazil supported Iran’s right to conduct nuclear research for peaceful purposes.
Brazil was one of just two countries (the other being Turkey) to vote against new sanctions targeting Iran and its nuclear program at the UN Security Council in June 2010.
The close rapport that developed between Lula and Ahmadinejad contributed to a significant boost in trade between the two countries, which has outlasted their respective terms in office. On the downside, the bilateral relationship’s dependence on individual personalities has made for an unstable long-term partnership.
For instance, the warmth went missing from the relationship after Dilma Rousseff became president of Brazil between 2011 and 2016. In her approach to international relations, Rousseff prioritized Brazil’s relationship with the US and support for human rights.
The election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 has done little to improve ties. The right-wing president aligned himself closely with former US President Donald Trump, becoming one of the few world leaders to openly back the elimination on Jan. 3, 2020, of Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s extraterritorial Quds Force.
While many countries called for a de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East, Brazil supported the US drone strike near Baghdad airport that killed Soleimani along with the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.
Now Iran’s fortunes in Brazil may be about to change again. Lula could make a major political comeback in the 2022 presidential election, having been cleared of a string of criminal convictions on March 8 this year.
Lula was implicated in a 2014 investigation dubbed Operation Car Wash, which uncovered evidence of corruption involving state-owned oil company Petrobras and several senior figures. Now a ban on Lula holding office has been lifted, so he is free to challenge Bolsonaro at the ballot box. Given Bolsonaro’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tehran will no doubt be watching the elections closely.
Regardless of who is in power, economic and commercial interests have and will remain a consistent driver of bilateral ties between Brazil and Iran, particularly in oil, gas, mineral exploration and agriculture. Their trade surplus in 2018 reached $2.2 billion in favor of Brazil.
That said, Iran’s South American agenda cannot be unpacked without a close look at the Triple Frontier — the tri-border area (TBA) where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge. In Foz do Iguacu, a Brazilian city in the TBA which hosts a significant Muslim population, Iran is suspected of infiltrating and manipulating the community, which in turn offers protection for Iranian agents and facilitates their movements across the TBA.
Since the Al-Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, US intelligence has been on guard against terrorist cells forming in this under-policed corner. Hezbollah has been able to find a footing in the TBA by piggybacking on the Lebanese diaspora presence. It has developed local contacts to facilitate as well as conceal its drug-trafficking, money-laundering and terrorist-financing operations.
The fact that, today, more than 5 million Lebanese migrants and their descendants live in just two countries (Brazil and Argentina) has proved a distinct advantage for Hezbollah, which tries to cultivate intelligence assets from across the religious spectrum.
Iran’s relationship with Latin America dates back to 1960 when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was founded. Ties were cemented further during the first Gulf War (1990-91) when Iran suspended wheat purchases from the US and began sourcing its imports from Brazil.
As Latin America’s biggest economy, the world’s fifth-largest country by area, and the sixth most populous, Brazil is among a group known as the BRIC nations, alongside Russia, India and China, which are expected to dominate manufacturing, services and raw-material production by the middle of the century.
Iran, by contrast, has faced varying degrees of political and economic isolation since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is viewed as a risky trading partner by the major economic powers in view of the many rounds of sanctions slapped on its industries and officials over the years.
Nevertheless, Iran has managed to win considerable political influence in Latin America and consolidate its network of allies, especially among Washington’s critics in Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela.
The regime in Tehran actively seeks to expand its list of friends in the hope of counterbalancing the international community’s opposition to its nuclear ambitions and to mobilize support for its policies.
To this end, it has established more than 36 Shiite cultural centers in 17 countries, many of which are allegedly being used as spy rings to gather intelligence. In Latin America the cultural centers act as hubs for recruiting spies and building popular support for Iran.
So far, though, Iran has had limited success in winning over the publics of Latin America. According to 2015 poll data from the Pew Research Center, involving 45,435 respondents across 40 countries, some 79 percent of Brazilians said they hold a negative view of Iran, while just 11 percent said they viewed it favorably.
Still, relationships with Latin American nations remain primarily the Iranian regime’s way of countering the impact of international sanctions and diversifying its means of survival. Through these connections, Iran hopes to project the image of a global power, overcome diplomatic isolation, win support for its nuclear program and potentially respond to US pressure from close proximity.
The last objective is especially well served by the free movement of Hezbollah and Iranian agents through Venezuela, Mexico, Nicaragua, Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and especially the TBA. These individuals would be well placed to enter the US through legitimate border crossings or among convoys of illegal immigrants.
The presence of Hezbollah and the IRGC in Latin America is considered a vital Iranian asset as it provides a base from which strikes can be launched against US targets in the event of an escalation in hostilities in the Middle East.