“One may criticize U.S. imperialism, yet, at the same time, it must be acknowledged that Iran is becoming an increasingly toxic influence in Latin America.”
President Donald Trump—along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—alleges that he ordered Qassem Suleimani’s killing because the Iranian general was about to launch attacks against American targets. Preemptive strikes are not necessarily immoral; however, President Trump’s decision appears erratic—and was certainly illegal. Furthermore, President Trump has offered no details about what those hypothetical Iranian attacks were supposed to be. If anything, President Trump’s decision has ushered in an unnecessary escalation that will make the Iranian attacks a reality. The attacks will come.
But, make no mistake: Qassem Suleimani was a brutal man, who embarked on a project of Iranian expansionism at any cost. The Left in the West has long had a fascination with Iran. Most notably, Michel Foucault described the 1979 revolution as, “a great joust under traditional emblems, those of the king and the saint, the armed ruler and the destitute exile, the despot faced with the man who stands up bare-handed and is acclaimed by a people.” It is hard to understand how many on the Left despise the European feudal Ancien Régime so much but somehow feel sympathy for brutal theocracies in other countries. Yet, this attitude persists, and critics go beyond condemning President Trump’s decision (a reasonable position) and opt, also, to lionize Suleimani.
Even in a region as far removed from the Middle East as Latin America, the heat of Iranian expansionism has been felt. Now, of course Latin America has been the United States’ backyard, and the region has witnessed a long history of American interventionism. It is completely understandable that south of the Rio Grande, there is much resentment towards the gringos. But, again, that does not make repressive theocracies any better. One may criticize U.S. imperialism, yet, at the same time, it must be acknowledged that Iran is becoming an increasingly toxic influence in Latin America.
In 1994, a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires was hit by a terrorist attack, leaving more than eighty people dead. Latin America has had its share of violence, but an attack of this kind was new. Police investigations eventually led to conclusions that Iranian agents were the masterminds of that attack. From what we can tell, Carlos Menem, the Argentine President at the time, wanted to enter into an energy deal with Iran; however, due to American pressure, the deal was cancelled. Iran then responded, attacking Buenos Aires. And, given Iran’s longstanding Antisemitic obsession, it targeted a Jewish center in the city.
Menem allegedly tried to protect some of the Iranians responsible for this attack. There have been unproven allegations that Menem offered protection to Iranian terrorists in exchange for large amounts of money in his personal account. In the subsequent years, Iran did not cooperate with Argentine authorities and refused to turn in the terrorists that had been singled out by the police investigation.
When Néstor Kirchner won the Presidency of Argentina and took office in 2004, he changed the strategy and reached a new deal with Iran: Argentine investigators would go to Iran and would directly interrogate the suspects. This deal was very unpopular in Argentina, but it was kept. Years later, a public prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, investigated this deal and concluded that Kirchner reached this agreement with Iran (part of the plan was to exonerate Iranians) in order to gain access to favorable oil deals.
Nisman was about to present the evidence for his claims on national television, but he died mysteriously the night before his scheduled appearance, in 2015. He was shot with a bullet to the head. Cristina Fernández (Kirchner’s widow and President of Argentina at the time of Nisman’s death) immediately alleged that Nisman committed suicide, presumably because he felt guilty about accusing innocent people. This was an outrageous claim. Under pressure, within days Cristina Fernández changed her version of events and alleged that Nisman had been killed by Fernández own political adversaries, in order to discredit her. This crime remains unsolved.
Fernández survived the political crisis that resulted from Nisman’s death, and she completed her presidency. She is now back in office, this time as Vice President to Alberto Fernández, though many commentators suggest that she is the one truly calling the shots. At some point, Alberto Fernández admitted that Nisman was murdered, but, now, he astonishingly has reverted back to the old theory that Nisman committed suicide, presumably to satisfy his Vice President.
The shadow of Iran looms large over all of this. Some allegations about Iran’s role in Latin America are rather weak. It is sometimes claimed that Venezuela—under the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro—has hosted Hezbollah training camps, under the mentorship of Iranian officials. There is no evidence for this. But, in the case of Iranian terrorists’ participation in the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing (and the murder of Nisman), the evidence is much more robust.
Iran is finding a niche for expansionism in Latin America—not only because it presents itself as a vindication against American imperialism but also because of its aggressive Antisemitism. And, particularly within the Latin American Left, there is some soft spot for Antisemitism. In fact, Latin America produced its own version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Walter Beveraggi, an Argentine conspiracy theorist, published a pamphlet detailing the so-called Andinia Plan. Allegedly, this was a complot organized by Jews to seize the Patagonia region of Argentina and annex it to Israel. The military dictatorships of Argentina in the 1970’s and 1980’s became obsessed with this conspiracy theory and interrogated many Jews as a result. These dictatorships are now gone, but there are still traces of that Antisemitism, which makes the situation ripe for the penetration of Iranian influence.
“Yankee, go home!” must never derive into “Persian, come and take us!”
Contrary to what most Western media portrays, the Iranian people are very proud of their pre-Islamic heritage. And, one feature of this heritage was the humanitarian approach of the Persian empires, as famously expressed in the Cyrus cylinder. Cyrus the Great defeated the imperial bully of his day, Babylon, and allowed exiled peoples to return to their lands. Jews have been forever grateful to Cyrus and Persian people for that. It may be tempting to think that, today, Iran is once again a power that defeats imperial bullies and—when expanding its influence—treats everyone with respect. That is what much of the Latin American Left seems to believe. However, we need a reality check. Iran has committed atrocities in our region, and its influence has been negative. “Yankee, go home!” must never derive into “Persian, come and take us!”.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80