Iran’s Breach of the Monroe Doctrine

The fifth American president could never have imagined a Persian nation breaching his famous doctrine.

Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran meet, October 20, 2010
Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran meet, October 20, 2010 (Prensa Miraflores)

When the fifth president of the United States designed the Monroe Doctrine, which was a watershed moment in the country’s foreign policy to check the ambitions of European imperial powers in Latin America, he could not have imagined that one day, a Persian nation would breach it.

President James Monroe devised his famous doctrine in 1823 after the Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia and Russia managed to reestablish Bourbon rule over Spain and its colonies by force. Spain’s dominions in South America were struggling for independence at the time. The Monroe Doctrine made it clear to Europe that armed intervention to prevent these nations from attaining self sovereignty would be considered nothing short of an attack upon the United States.

Two centuries later it is not a European power with the audacity to challenge American supremacy in the Western Hemisphere but Iran which realizes that the United States’ influence on the continent has peaked. From Brazil to the Southern Cone of Argentina and Chile, South America is asserting itself as a region that is more independent from the United States than it has been in decades.

With wars raging in the Middle East, China rising and North Korea continually begging for attention, South America has been neglected somewhat. For some of the countries in the region, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes as an improbable hero who has taken on the mighty United States all by himself.

Ahmadinejad visited the continent for the first time in September 2006. He traveled to Ecuador and Nicaragua and sealed a strategic partnership with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez at the time.

Iran and Venezuela are both members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. On his visit, the Iranian president tried to portray himself as something of a fellow liberator of South American and appealed to the Venezuelan people that the Bolivarian and Iranian Revolutions were actually very similar.

South America already boasts a powerful economic bloc, Mercosur, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay as full members. Venezuela is set to ratified as a member soon and the free-trade organization could eventually gobble up the Andean Pact nations as well. Venezuela is Iran’s biggest market in Latin America while Brazil is its largest exporter to Iran.

Following in the footsteps of China and Russia, Iran is aggressively courting Latin America’s leftist regimes, challenging the United States in its own backyard.

One of the fruits of Iran’s diplomacy in Latin America has been Brazil’s and Venezuela’s votes on the International Atomic Energy Board of Governors. In late November 2009, as Iran’s secret enrichment plan was revealed, Brazil abstained from voting on a resolution that called on Iran to halt uranium enrichment and freeze the construction of its new nuclear facility. Venezuela voted against the measure.

The relationship between Brazil and Iran may not be deep but it is politically intertwined. The strategic value it holds for both countries is undeniable. As Iran searches for relationships with influential countries that are sympathetic to its nuclear policy and have a vote on the United Nations Security Council, Brazil is thinking about playing the “Iran card” to assert itself internationally. Its unique ties with Iran strengthen its case for permanent Security Council membership and could improve its credentials as a new, responsible power capable of resolving pertinent international disputes.

Most recently, in May of last year, Brazil joined with Turkey to broker a nuclear agreement with Iran which called upon the Islamic regime to transfer a portion of its nuclear material for enrichment abroad. Although the United States and its allies didn’t recognize the deal, the declaration elevated Brazil’s position in the international arena much to Iran’s acceptance.

Brazil has become an unlikely guarantor of Iran’s sovereign rights. Iran could not ask for more. It chose Brazil, along with Turkey, as its main mediators in the upcoming nuclear negotiations that will take place this month, probably in Turkey. Brazil is also interested in investing in Iran’s vast energy resources. Iran is simultaneously selling arms, offering aid and investment under the banner of South to South relations

Iran’s endeavors in South America are an extension of its policy of acquiring strategic depth. The high point of Iranian courtship in the Americas will likely be exhibited at the upcoming Nonaligned Movement Summit of 2012. Almost all of South America’s nations subscribe to the principles of the nonaligned movement. It is expected that Iran will accept a greater leadership role in the organization with the consent of most South American countries at the summit.