My research assistant, Kelsey Price, has completed her third backgrounder for this summer. Her first detailed energy security in Russia and Turkey, and the second reviewed Sino-Brazilian relations. In her third and final piece, she reviews Iranian activity in Bolivia.
International observers have questioned Bolivia’s ability to control crime within its borders before, especially concerning the drug trade and the Maoist terrorist group Shining Path. Four provinces are looking to separate from the central government, resulting in referendums and anti-referendum marches. Now with Iran’s increasing presence in South America, Bolivia may also be susceptible to radical Islamic activity inspired (or organized) by its new ally.
President Evo Morales’ track record doesn’t help Bolivia’s case either—his links to various attacks in Peru, especially, cast doubt on his ability to control (or keep away from) terrorism in the region. Morales’ former aide was accused in 2007 of assisting terrorism in Peru, specifically with the Cuban Tupac Amaru movement of the 1980’s. Deteriorating relations with Latin American neighbors combine now with right-wing opposition of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party. Main opposition leader Manfred Reyes Villa, former Cochabamba Prefect, has joined forces with disgruntled indigenous rights leaders in order to form a significant alternative to Morales. More importantly, four provinces began to seek independence from La Paz in 2008: Santa Cruz, Tarlja, Beni, Pando and Chuqulsaca. The two parties reached an agreement that October, but tension still lingers over relations between Morales and the opposition-led provinces.
The conflict brought about by such a strong—and influential—opposition may create the kind of instability needed for a future crime hotbed to grow. Bolivia’s ties with Iran, especially, suggest that radical Islamic activity may begin to take root in the region.
Iran’s initiative to gain support in Latin America leads it to investing in left-wing Bolivia, second only to Venezuela in winning the Middle Eastern nation’s favor and financial support. The two partners have discussed joint venture projects in the industrial and manufacturing sectors, and critics conclude that Tehran secretly has its hands in uranium mining deals as well. Iran promised in 2008 to invest 1.1 billion dollars in Bolivia in the next five years, aimed at strengthening economic and agricultural ties while also fostering the Bolivian energy sector. So far, Tehran has lived up to its promise. Iran has funded on credit the construction of two cement and six milk-processing plants, three health clinics, and suggests potential aid in oil and other energy fields.
The Iranian administration caused an uproar in the government’s own Majlis parliament when it provided Bolivia with an unapproved loan of over 280 million dollars on July 31, 2009.Over and above the material and financial support that Iran has provided, newly installed TV and radio stations may spread Tehran’s influence at a more cultural level. Iranian radio has broadcast in-depth reports and interviews about its positive relationship to Latin America, the evils of colonialism, and anti-imperialism. “This opportunity has come up for Iran,” said Dr Massah, a university lecturer on one program, “to spread the slogans of anti colonialism, prevent the international system from becoming monopolized, and spread the sense of seeking justice, which arises from Islamic standards, in [Latin America].” Bolivia’s state-run TV channel regularly shows Iranian movies, and a Muslim preacher delivered services at a state-sponsored event in June 2009.
Some of Morales’ sizable opposition questions Iran’s intentions and growing influence. “We need to ask what Iran’s real interest is in Bolivia,” said dissident presidential candidate Roman Loayza. “Evo has no business entering into agreements with foreign interests at the back of the Bolivian people which could harm our environment.” Both sides of those agreements insist that Iran’s activities are harmless.
The partnership has become more than just economic, however; Bolivia has sided with Iran in recent controversial issues, including some in which Islam influenced the decision. Bolivia joined its radical counterparts in the Israel-Palestine issue in January 2009 by breaking off relations with Israel, a move endorsed by President Ahmadinehad, Iranian MP and head of Iran-Bolivia Parliamentary Friendship Group Arsalan Farthi-Pur, and even Hamas. The support of the terrorist organization may be at least the first step in the direction of a Bolivia heavily dependant on radical Islamic groups.
Bolivia shares another political stance with these groups: its disdain for the United States. Morales even expelled the US Drug Enforcement Agency in November 2008 in a move that analysts have said was thought-out foreign policy. However, Bolivia is predicted to return for the American agency to help counter its ever-growing drug problem; the country is the third-largest producer of the coca leaf in the world.
Bolivia’s only reported brush with radical Islamic activity was a group of Shi’ite missionaries sent by Iranian fundamentalist group Hezbollah to convert indigenous Latin American tribes, according to a Bolivian journalist in 2007. At the time of the report, the group had successfully installed bases in other areas, mostly along the Venezuelan-Colombian border, and was spreading to the Quechua and Aymara Indians of Bolivia. The real threat, however, comes from Hugo Chavez’s role in the Hezbollah group’s presence. Considering the strong relationship between Iran and Venezuela, especially among its populist leaders, the possibility of Morales’ involvement in something like the Hezbollah missionary project seems likely. Bolivia, with its Iran-sponsored health clinics and TV channels, may adopt the same relationship to Tehran’s more controversial groups.
“Peru seeks extradition of terrorism-accused ex-Bolivian aide.” Global Insight. 25 October 2007.
“Bolivian candidate forms alliance with indigenous leader.” Bolivian newspaper La Razon websitre, 7 July 2009. Translated by BBC World Monitoring.
Barbel, Marion. “Andean bloc, European Union offer mediation services to tense Bolivia.” 14 April, 2008. Global Insight.
“Bolivians resist Iran's search for uranium; Mountain holds mineral prospects.” Washington Times. 27 July 2009.
Kazemi, Azadeh. “Iran wants to ‘exploit’ Bolivian uranium.” Iranian newspaper Kargozaran. 22 September, 2008.
“Iran confirms plans to install television channel in Bolivia.” Bolivian newspaper La Razon website. 20 May 2009. Linked by BBC World Monitoring.
“Iran MPs slam government over loan to Bolivia.” Iranian news agency Mehr. 3 August 2009.
“Iranian Esfahan TV airs programme on Iran-Latin America relationships.” 7 October 2008. Iranian Esfahan provincial TV station. Supplied by BBC World Monitoring.
“Bolivians resist Iran's search for uranium; Mountain holds mineral prospects” Washington Times. 27 July 2009.
See “Bolivians resist…” Washington Times, 27 July 2009.
“Iranian President praises Venezuela, Bolivia for break with Israel.” Venezuelan newspaper El Universal website. 22 January 2009. Linked by BBC World Monitoring.
“Iranian MP thanks Bolivia for condemning Israel’s ‘war crimes.’” Iranian official government news agency IRNA website. 20 May 2009. Linked by BBC World Monitoring.
“Hamas welcomes Bolivian decision to sever ties with Israel.” Pro-Hamas Palestinian Information Centre. 15 January 2009. Linked by BBC World Monitoring.
“Expulsion of US agency ‘well thought out foreign policy.’” Bolivian newspaper Los Tiempos. 4 November 2008. Linked by BBC World Monitoring.
Volkel, Christian. “Anti-Narcotics Co-Operation to Continue between US and Bolivia.” Global Insight. 8 April 2009.
“Hezbollah Missionaries Operate in Amazonia.” Peruvian newspaper La Razon, 29 October 2007. Provided by BBC World Monitoring.