U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of Latin America, Africa and Peripheral States

US competition with Iran has become the equivalent of a game of three-dimensional chess, but a game where each side can modify at least some of the rules with each move. It is also a game that has been going on for some three decades.  It is clear that it is also a game that is unlikely to be ended by better dialog and mutual understanding, and that Iran’s version of “democracy” is unlikely to change the way it is played in the foreseeable future.

The Burke Chair at CSIS is preparing a detailed analysis of the history and character of this competition as part of a project supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation. This has led to the preparation of a new draft report entitled Peripheral Competition Involving Latin America and Africa, which is now available on the CSIS web site at: https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/120314_Iran_Chapter_XII_Peripheral_States.pdf

This report shows that Iran pursues cooperation with states on the geographic and strategic periphery of the competition between the US and Iran in order to create a network of diplomatic and economic relationships or “partners” who can lessen the blow of international sanctions and generally oppose Western attempts to constrict its ambitions. These peripheral “partners,” located mainly in Africa and Latin America, also serve as alternative markets for Iranian oil, provide diplomatic cover for Iran’s nuclear efforts, and aid Iran’s acquisition of goods proscribed by international sanctions.

Tehran’s strategy pragmatically subordinates concerns for ideological and religious homogeneity to the goal of creating a coalition of non- or anti-Western states capable of influencing its competition with the United States. The states involved  are drawn to Iran by both promises of economic help—particularly in the energy sector—and by Iranian appeals to commonly oppose the Western international system.

The Islamic Republic also portrays its present isolation by the US and Europe as a continuation of Western imperialism, and draws on its credentials as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement to elicit support from the disparate states throughout Africa and the Americas that have preexisting grievances with the Western order and its leading states.

According to Iranian leaders, the IRI’s competition with the US and its allies is not a just a contest between states, but a clash of worldviews. The US represents an exploitative status quo, and Iran offers the promise of an alternative order geared toward promoting the sovereignty and interests of developing nations. Speaking to an audience in Nigeria in 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for a decisive break with the present Western-dominated system:

We have to develop a proper cooperation among the developing nations in order to wriggle ourselves from the domination of the western powers.  And this effort is going on among the independent developing nations today. We have to establish a collective effort with a view to create a new international independent economic system that should be on the basis of justice.

Though many of the countries Iran seeks to cooperate with are militarily and economically weak, Tehran casts a wide net in trying to build an array of partners to counterbalance what it sees as Western dominance of the global order. Iran seeks to be the hub of a non-Western bloc, and intends to frustrate American influence over Iran and throughout the developing world.

US ability to push back against Iran’s attempts to widen its network of such countries is strongest in countries that benefit from US aid, trade, or that lack a significant basis for ideological disagreement with US practices. While Iran’s overtures to peripheral states have the potential to weaken US attempts to contain and isolate Iran, Tehran’s web is fragile and possibly illusory.

It remains to be seen if Tehran can make good on the development commitments it has made to potential partners or if its bonds with peripheral states can be institutionalized beyond a personal relationship between heads of state. Iran’s plan to restructure the international system in opposition to the Western-led model remains the vision of a few fringe governments and does not appear likely to spread.

This report is a working draft chapter in a comprehensive survey of US and Iranian competition made possible through the funding of the Smith Richardson Foundation, which is to be published as an electronic book in early March.  Comments and suggestions would be most helpful. They should be sent to Anthony H. Cordesman at acordesman@gmail.com.

Other draft chapters and reports in this series include:

  1. Introduction
  2. Types and Levels of Competition - This chapter looks at the various arenas in which Iran and the U.S. compete for influence.
  3. Iran and the Gulf Military Balance - This chapter looks at Iran’s Military forces in detail, and the balance of forces in the Gulf Region.
  4. Iran and the Gulf Military Balance II – This chapter looks at Iran’s Missile and Nuclear forces.
  5. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Sanctions game: Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change - This chapter examines the impact of sanctions on the Iranian regime, Iran’s energy sector, and the prospects for regime change in Tehran.
  6. US and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and Yemen - This chapter examines the competition between the US, and Iran and how it affects Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman and Qatar.
  7. The Outcome of Invasion: US and Iranian Strategic Competition in Iraq - This chapter examines in detail the role Iran has played in Iraq since 2003, and how the US has tried to counter it.
  8. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Proxy Cold War in the Levant, Egypt and Jordan - This chapter examines US and Iranian interests in the Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Syria.  The military balance is also analyzed.
  9. The United States and Iran: Competition involving Turkey and the South Caucasus - This chapter analyzes the US and Iranian competition over influence in Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
  10. Competition in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan - This chapter examines the important role Iran plays in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and how the US and Iranian rivalry affects Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
  11. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of China and Russia - This chapter examines the complex and evolving relationships between China, Russia, Iran and the US.
  12. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Competition Involving the EU, EU3, and non-EU European States - This chapter looks at the role the EU, and in particular the EU3, have played as the U.S.’s closest allies in its competition with Iran.
  13. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Peripheral Competition Involving Latin America and Africa - This chapter examines the extent and importance of the competition between the US and Iran in the rest of the world.