The Phantom Menace

Apparently Roberto Micheletti and certain policy circles in Washington didn’t get the memo that the 1980s are over.  First, the Honduran de facto ruler led a coup toppling a democratically elected government.  Now, beltway insiders are warning that the United States faces an existential threat to its security, the seeds of which are germinating in Nicaragua, and sewn by those ever nefarious Iranians. 

So, what are the Iranians up to exactly? Establishing Hezbollah sleeper cells for wreaking havoc in the States? Nope. Sharing the nuclear secrets that it probably doesn’t have with Daniel Ortega? Yeah right. Spreading its particular brand of islamofascism (whatever that means) to rural farmers?  Hardly. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua. And you can only imagine what that’s for.”  

I can actually: diplomacy.   

The Iranians have made a concerted effort to establish a more robust presence in the region since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took power in 2005, largely with the encouragement of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.  The Iranians have nearly doubled the number of missions in Latin America during that time, jumping into the gaping diplomatic void left from US withdrawal from the region during the George W. Bush administration, and signing numerous economic and military partnerships with its new allies.  

Iran’s growing influence in the Americas has stoked fear on the part of American officials who worry that, well…it’s not clear exactly.  Many point to Iran’s alleged connections to two terrorist bombings in Argentina, both of which took place over fifteen years ago.  The fear, apparently, is that “in the event of a conflict with Iran… it would attempt to use its presence in the region to conduct such activities against us.”

While scenarios such as this are certainly frightening to ponder, the actual record of Iranian relations in Latin America suggests that too much credit is given to the regime in Tehran. In fact, the Ahmadinejad era has ushered in a series of diplomatic embarrassments in Latin America, and has tied Tehran to the sinking ship of Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution.  Relations with Nicaragua have been especially troubled, as Tehran has begged off honoring numerous economic commitments, failed to produce the millions of dollars in investment Ahmadinejad assured his counterparts in Managua, and refuses to help the Central American country renegotiate its $160 million debt.  

According to an article in today’s Washington Post, the Nicaraguans are desperate for anything from Iran.  A senior economic advisor to Daniel Ortega is quoted complaining that “They haven’t invested anything. They haven’t built anything.  We haven’t even been able to renegotiate the debt. They say the Koran doesn’t permit them to. We’ll have to study the Koran to see if we can find something that condones it.”  If this is what passes for international relations between the two countries, American officials have nothing to fear. 

The paranoia in Washington is one part Cold War residue in the logic driving US foreign policy in Latin America, two parts ignorance as to what’s actually going on in the region.  The Bush administration’s antagonism and distracted attention toward relations with its southern neighbors left the United States isolated, distrusted, and largely ignorant of the political undercurrents sweeping through Latin American politics.  Its decision to eschew productive engagement with the leftist governments that have taken power in recent years in favor of successive rounds of chest-thumping with Chavez created a distorted image of the region and rendered the United States prone to accepting faulty intelligence as the gospel truth. Evidently, Clinton’s State Department has been slow to crawl out from under the information deficit left by its predecessor. 

Case in point, the supposed Iranian mega-embassy in Managua: it doesn’t exist.  In fact, the only sprawling embassy in Nicaragua belongs to none other than the United States.  While the source of the false rumor remains unclear, the fact that it informed Secretary Clinton’s public statements on the matter is troubling.  The fact that a US diplomat in the Nicaraguan capital admitted that “There is no huge Iranian Embassy being built as far as we can tell,” (emphasis added) is more worrisome still.  How hard would it be to find out?  I’m worried more by this lazy admission than by the specter of the increased diplomatic presence of Iran in the country.    

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