US and Iranian Strategic Competition: Latin America, Africa, and the Peripheral States

Strategic competition between the US and Iran in Latin America and Africa remains a critical aspect of any national security discussion. Recent developments in Latin America, Africa, Iran, and elsewhere necessitate a reevaluation of Iran’s presence in the region, as well as the threat it poses to the United States. The Burke Chair in Strategy’s recently released report, “US and Iranian Strategic Competition:  Latin America, Africa, and the Periphery States” provides new analysis on these issues.

The death of Hugo Chavez and the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency remove two of the most important figures in the Iranian-Latin America relationship. Additionally, despite Iranian vows of increased aid to both Africa and Latin America, funds have been either nonexistent or far smaller than promised. Analysis of such developments and their implications have been published in an updated report entitled “US and Iranian Strategic Competition: Latin America, Africa, and the Peripheral States,” which is now available on the CSIS website at:

As newly imposed American and European sanctions begin to take hold on the Iranian economy, the government in Tehran has sought to mitigate their punitive effect and side-step Western pressure by seeking partnerships with states on the geographic and strategic periphery of the US-Iran competition.

Iran has worked to build relationships with other politically isolated governments with which it has somewhat of an ideological connection, like Venezuela and Zimbabwe. However, Tehran also forged closer ties with states that are drawn to Iran for economic, rather than political, purposes. Although states such as Argentina and Brazil may not politically align themselves with the Islamic Republic, both have strong trade partnerships with Iran. Despite these efforts, however, Iran’s embrace of these periphery states is limited and has been hindered by the overwhelming degree of US economic integration in both regions.

This report shows that Iran pursued cooperation with states on the geographic and strategic periphery. In addition to general trade and diplomatic ties, these peripheral partners also have served as alternative markets for Iranian oil, provided diplomatic cover for Iran’s nuclear efforts, and aided Iran’s acquisition of goods proscribed by international sanctions.

Tehran’s strategy pragmatically subordinated 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  have been 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 has also characterized its present isolation by the US and Europe as a continuation of Western imperialism, and drew 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.

Though many of the countries Iran has sought cooperation with are militarily and economically weak, Tehran cast a wide net in trying to build an array of partners to counterbalance what it sees as Western dominance of the global order. Iran has sought to be the hub of a non-Western bloc, and worked 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 has the following table of contents:

Introduction 5
Latin America 5
Figure 1: Chronology of Leadership Meetings 6
Venezuela’s Approach to Sanctions: Diplomatic and Practical Rejection 11
Ecuador 14
Bolivia 15
Nicaragua 16
Argentina 17
Africa and Other Peripheral States 20
Figure 2 Map of Iran in Africa 22
Shared Isolation as a Common Interest 26
Zimbabwe’s Potential Role in Iran’s Nuclear Programs 27
Implications for US Policy 28

Other current reports in this series, and the web sites for obtaining the reports, include:

THE GULF MILITARY BALANCE Volume I: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions: This report examines Iran’s conventional and asymmetric military forces in detail, and the balance of forces in the Gulf Region.

THE GULF MILITARY BALANCE Volume II: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions: This report looks at Iran’s Missile and Nuclear forces, the options for missile defense and containment, and the possible nature and outcome of US and Israeli preventive strikes.

THE GULF MILITARY BALANCE Volume III: The Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula: This report examines the growing US security partnership with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – established as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).        

US and Iranian Strategic Competition: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia: This report covers US and Iranian competition in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and every country in central Asia.

US and Iranian Strategic Competition: Turkey and the South Caucasus: This report analyzes the US and Iranian competition over influence in Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia.