Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has long been Iran’s greatest ally in the Western Hemisphere, but as Chavez’s cancer grows and his country’s future becomes increasingly uncertain, Iran may need to find a new best friend in Latin America—and fast.
Since Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first visited Bolivia in 2007, the relationship between Amhadinejad and Bolivian President Evo Morales has grown. The two even played soccer together in Tehran not too long ago. But Morales and Ahmadinejad’s fancy footwork aside, it’s clear that the relationship between Bolivia and Iran is deepening.
Last May, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi visited the city of Warnes, Bolivia, for the inauguration of the new College for Defense of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA). ALBA, the eight-member economic and geopolitical bloc founded by Chavez and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has long had close relations with Iran. But this time around, Iran seems to have taken on more than a mere observer role, as it is believed to have put up at least a portion of the money to establish the new ALBA school.
And if the financial support weren’t enough, experts also believe that Iran has sent anywhere from 50 to 300 members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard to Bolivia to serve as trainers at the school. The news is seemingly in line with a 2010 Pentagon warning that a growing number of Iranian Qods Force (an elite unit in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps dedicated to special operations and intelligence missions) officers are present in Latin America.
But that’s not the half of it. As American Foreign Policy Council Vice President Ilan Berman explains, “Iran’s involvement in the ALBA school serves as a microcosm of the Iranian-Bolivian relationship writ large.” Berman goes on to explain, “Indeed, regional experts now estimate that Bolivia could end up becoming as significant as Venezuela in Iran, both as a source of strategic resources for its widening nuclear program and as a hub for the Iranian regime’s expanding asymmetric activities in the Americas.”
Poised to offer Iran diplomatic cover and international support, not to mention long-term access to strategic materials like uranium, it seems no question that Bolivia stands ready and waiting as a friend to Iran. The real question is whether the U.S. will take note.