Iran’s Influence in the Americas

Through trade, assistance, and bilateral cooperation, the nations of the Americas are more globally connected than ever before. Not just to former colonial powers, but to such faraway places as Afghanistan, China, India, Russia, and Singapore. In 2007, Colombian police were training Afghan counterparts. China’s commerce with Latin America and the Caribbean has grown from about $12 billion in 2000 to some $176.8 billion in 2010. India’s trade is on track to double from $23 billion in 2010 to $50 billion in 2014. Russia has more extensive commercial and political ties in the hemisphere than it did during the Cold War. And Singapore is now Venezuela’s fifth-largest trading partner. Yet, another foreign power has made inroads and is provoking worries that for now are larger than its actual impact. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Once a U.S. ally during the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1941–1979), and then hostile to the United States following the shah’s overthrow in 1979, Iran has sought foreign partners to project an image of global power, expand trade, intertwine its finances more tightly into the international banking system, and forge political alliances. By most measures, it has been only partly successful, managing to have a small amount of influence with a handful of governments. Although that may not present an existential threat to the United States, it could mean trouble for the hemisphere if Iran decided to raise tensions through renewed support for terrorism or development of a nuclear weapon.

Considering such possibilities, it is important to understand the motives of Iran and its partners in exploiting links, as well as the assets and liabilities of such relationships for each side as Iran tries to gain a foothold. An evaluation of its outreach to the hemisphere before the Islamic revolution, its outreach efforts since then, the role of its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, and the state of its nuclear program are critical to understanding possible implications for the United States. Overestimating a potential Iranian threat could lead to reactions more damaging than anything Iran could do by degrading U.S. relations with neighboring governments and publics. Underestimating a potential threat could send the wrong message about U.S. seriousness to counter challenges to its interests and those of democratic allies.

Stephen Johnson