On July 20, Iranian state media reported on a new bilateral defense agreement between Bolivia and Iran. That same day, a sanctioned Iranian cargo ship arrived in the Venezuelan port city of La Guaira to reportedly deliver hundreds of automobiles to the Maduro regime. A few days later, Iran-made fast attack craft and anti-ship missiles were on full display at the Venezuelan Navy’s bicentennial celebration, while Bolivia’s defense minister confirmed that their agreement with Iran includes the transfer of drones to the landlocked Andean nation.
After more than four decades of persistent, systematic penetration of Latin America, Iran is reaching its full geopolitical potential in the Western Hemisphere, prepositioning military assets and armaments in the region. Tehran’s goal is to bring the fight to the United States.
Core to Iran’s effort is developing a state and non-state proxy network in Latin America, much the same way Iran has done in the Middle East. Venezuela and Bolivia are at the top of the list.
The Broader Region Looks On
Bolivia is Iran’s most successful foreign policy project in Latin America. Prior to 2007, Iran had no diplomatic presence in Bolivia and virtually no bilateral relationship.
After Iran signed a strategic agreement with the Evo Morales-led government in September 2007, relations began to blossom. By 2010, Bolivia started buying military aircraft parts from Iran, and in 2012 the two nations signed an anti-narcotics accord. Bolivia hosted Iranian military officials under the auspices of fighting against drug trafficking. This accord, signed more than 10 years ago, forms the basis of the new Iran-Bolivia defense cooperation causing controversy in the region today.
One of the latest examples of such controversy came late last month when the Argentine Foreign Ministry asked Bolivia to explain its new defense agreement, which has drawn harsh criticism from the Argentine opposition. Buenos Aires was bombed twice by Hezbollah with the help of Iran in the 1990s.
Despite that, the leftwing Argentine government of President Alberto Fernandez has at best turned a blind eye to Iran’s inroads in South America. At worst, he has sent an active signal to Tehran that the time is right to formalize its ambition of staging a permanent military presence in the region.
Most notably, the Fernandez government failed to prosecute Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps pilots last year after a mysterious Iranian-Venezuelan cargo plane was grounded in Buenos Aires. At least one of the sanctioned IRGC pilots investigated, Gholamreza Ghasemi, traveled to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in October 2022 after being released by Argentine authorities despite ample evidence of his membership in the feared Revolutionary Guards.
Fernandez’ approach to the IRGC pilots reflects the region’s passive approach to Iranian influence more broadly. Many simply look on as Venezuela, Bolivia, and others deepen their partnership with Iran.
In October 2020, following expiration of a United Nations-mandated arms embargo on Iran, a flight from Argentina to Venezuela prompted the current Tehran-La Paz defense agreement. In the wake of his socialist party’s electoral victory in Bolivia, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s ex-president, flew from Buenos Aires to Caracas to coincide with the arrival of Iranian officials in Venezuela.
The establishment of a commission on technical-military cooperation was announced shortly thereafter. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro emphasized that brother nations would advise this military commission, naming China, Cuba, Russia, and Iran. Bolivia was not publicly named, but the presence of Morales made it clear that his nation was also involved.
Indeed, the decades-old Venezuelan-Bolivian military cooperation is what underpins Iran’s advancements, both in the Andean nation and across the rest of the continent. In 2006, Venezuela and Bolivia signed a defense agreement that included Venezuelan military deployments to a strategic port, Puerto Quijarro, on Bolivia’s border with Brazil. Years later, according to Brazilian sources, Iranian personnel also began arriving at this inland river port city, which connects to the strategic Paraná-Paraguay Waterway and eventually moves to the Atlantic Ocean.
Further north and across the Amazon, Iran’s military presence in Venezuela has grown. Despite high levels of corruption and lack of leadership, the Venezuelan Armed Forces is the first Latin American military to have armed drones in its inventory, courtesy of Iran. In 2021, Venezuela began receiving shipments of Iran-made precision-guided short-range missiles that will likely be used to arm the drones.
Delivered under the guise of commercial cargo shipments from Iranian auto manufacturers, the episode reflected Iran’s mastery of dual-use transfers and its remarkable ability to blend commercial and military projects. This capacity has helped Tehran penetrate deep into Latin America, evading U.S. and international sanctions, but also confusing many Latin American intelligence agencies who are unfamiliar with Iran’s covert military programs.
While some Latin American leaders are confused, others are complicit. Venezuela’s Maduro and Bolivian President Luis Arce are among Iran’s most ardent supporters in Latin America, but they are not alone. Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega and Cuba’s Miguel Diaz-Canel are also exploring military cooperation with Iran, underscored by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s recent visit to both countries.
Even U.S. allies under leftist leadership are flirting with Iran. Just weeks after Brazilian President Inacio Lula Da Silva was inaugurated, for instance, two Iranian warships berthed in Brazil. Such a visit shows that Iran is rapidly advancing its military cooperation in Latin America.
It is time for Washington to take notice. This is not just about sending Iranian weapons to America’s doorstep. It also normalizes a permanent Iranian military presence in the Western Hemisphere. In doing so, Iran seeks to steer Latin American governments toward an anti-U.S., anti-Israel, and anti-democratic foreign policy posture. What has already happened in Bolivia and Venezuela is just the beginning.
Iran is ready to ramp up its military presence in Latin America to the detriment of U.S. partners and allies. Washington’s response will go a long way toward signaling to Iran’s leaders, and their Latin American allies, whether the United States is serious about countering the intrusion of one of the world’s most dangerous regimes into the Western Hemisphere.
This piece originally appeared in 1945