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Why Iran is increasing its military presence in Latin America

Last week, Iran’s state-owned media extensively reported on its military involvement in Latin American countries, including Mexico, Cuba, Ecuador, Chile and Venezuela. Tehran is laying the groundwork to escalate its naval presence on the continent. These developments ought to be viewed with alarm for several reasons, including the fact that Iran is currently ranked fourth in the world after North Korea, China and the US in terms of naval strength.
The commander of Iran’s navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, said it “will berth in friendly states in Latin America and the Gulf of Mexico in the near future... We are not faced with any restriction for deploying in the seas, and anywhere we feel that we have interests to develop ties, we will certainly deploy there and we enjoy this power too.”
Iran’s plan to expand its influence and military presence in Latin America dates back to the mid-1980s after the regime was established. Evidence presented at court hearings linked Tehran to the bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli Embassy in 1992, and a Jewish community center in 1994.
Iran’s concerted efforts to expand its influence in Latin America is part of its larger agenda to heighten its military presence in international waters in order to achieve its imperialistic and hegemonic ambitions. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently emphasized the need for the navy to be a major player in the region and beyond.
Soon after his instructions, the navy began more provocative maneuvers in the Gulf, and intensified harassment of US, British and regional ships. Tehran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, which could lead to an international crisis because roughly a third of the global oil trade by sea goes through this strategic location. 
Iran’s navy plays a critical role in projecting and boasting about Tehran’s power by actions such as displaying the national flag near the coasts of other nations. It also facilities the smuggling of arms to militias and proxies such as the Houthis in Yemen.
Tehran allies itself with any government or non-state actor that it believes can help it advance anti-Americanism. The ruling mullahs pose a threat to US national security. Latin American countries could be opportune places for Iranian covert intelligence operations, specifically against the US. Tehran is also shoring up its extremist base domestically, and attracting more militia recruits, by saying it not only wields power in the Middle East but also further afield.

For one, Tehran allies itself with any government or nonstate actor that it believes can help it advance anti-Americanism.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

A core article of Iran’s constitution states that the military is responsible for spreading the mullahs’ fundamentalist, revolutionary and religious principles. Normally, Tehran infiltrates other nations gradually, communicating with various communities, funding them and trying to influence them.
Over years or decades, some of these groups become robust proxies or militias that aim to advance Tehran’s agenda. Iran even has a Spanish-language TV station, Hispan TV, to spread its propaganda.
Iran exploits Latin American countries in order to dispatch fighters (specifically from Hezbollah), create terror cells and train militias on the continent. Its increasing involvement in Latin America also provides economic gains for Tehran. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with senior politicians of six Latin American countries to discuss trade and boosting relations to a “whole new level.”
This would help Tehran evade international pressure and sanctions. Some Latin American governments, such as in Ecuador and Venezuela, are delighted to allow Tehran to increase its influence on the continent. Iran even has observer status in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, an intergovernmental organization that promotes the social, political and economic integration of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Iran’s increasing military presence in Latin America poses a security threat not only to the US, but to the world.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh