US v Iran: Whose Team Would You Join?

Over the past week, there's been a lot of speculation over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Latin America. To help get some perspective on the debate, we asked international security expert and MIT professor Dr. Jim Walsh three questions on just what Iran might be up to. His answer? Not much. 

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in Venezuela this week to seek financial help from Hugo Chavez, among other things. Will this visit have any impact on global attempts to pressure Iran to scale back its nuclear program?

Dr. Walsh: None whatsoever. For the last few years, Ahmadinejad has traveled to Latin America, in part, to demonstrate to those both at home and abroad that Iran is not isolated. It's worth noting that this year's itinerary does not include the region's most powerful nations, countries like Argentina and Brazil. If you were choosing sides for an international game of kick-ball, you would not choose the side with Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. You'd pick the side with Europe and other American allies. Venezuela, like Iran, is among the weakest members of OPEC, so it will be of limited help to Iran. In any case, the future of the Iranian economy largely depends on 1) the price of oil and 2) the managerial competence/corruption of the Iranian leadership -- with sanctions adding some burden at the margins. Ahmadinejad is, like many before him, a leader who is weak at home and welcomes the opportunity to travel abroad, where he is still treated like a President. In short, this trip is largely meaningless.

Among Latin American nations, Brazil has stepped in to broker solutions to the impasse between the West and Iran over Iran's nuclear program. Do they have a role to play in the future? 

Dr. Walsh: It is possible that Brazil could again enter the diplomatic fray, but there appears to be no rush to reprise that role. Brazil felt as if it got burned by its last intervention, when it joined Turkey in trying to get a last minute nuclear deal with Iran. Neither Brazil nor Turkey has expressed interest in continuing nuclear discussions, and Brazil will want to be cautious about its ties with Iran, if only because Brazil also has a nuclear program with a suspect past and a new enrichment program. In short, it is possible, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

Will the proposed sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran advanced by Congress have an effect on Latin American? Are there signs that other U.S. allies are pushing back against the CBI sanctions? 

Dr. Walsh: Developing countries are naturally suspect of sanctions imposed by wealthy countries, and particularly ones that set new precedents. Going after a country's central bank is highly unusual, and weaker countries naturally wonder if they too will someday be the object of this new instrument. These kinds of sanctions also call into question a country's sovereignty and independence of foreign policy. One would expect that the real issues for US Latin American allies will be enforcement and exemptions. Will America's friends be subject to prosecution or penalties for doing business with Iran's central bank? in the end, probably not, at least not without generous compensation for their troubles.

Got more questions? Add a comment or send us a tweet @plough_shares and we'll blog the answers.


Photo courtesy of Dr. Jim Walsh