Recent rumors about Iran’s “close ties” with Latin America have caused Washington to shake in its alarmist boots. In January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of Iranian “subversive activity” in the region. “The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added in May. “And you can only imagine what that’s for.”
To date, there is still no sign of the embassy in Nicaragua despite Clinton’s breathless warning. But additional warnings have come from elsewhere.
In May, a secret Israeli government report was leaked that implicated Venezuela and Bolivia in the sale of uranium to Iran. Hugo Chavez has not found time in his weekly 12-hour broadcast “Alo Presidente” to refute the accusation. The Evo Morales camp in Bolivia denied it, though Morales did raise eyebrows after announcing a pending low-interest $280 million loan offer from Iran.
In July, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Argentina to address Israeli concerns over uranium sales and terrorist activities throughout the continent. His concerns were not reciprocated in Brazil or Colombia. Brazilian President Lula said little about Iran’s program, noting only that he hoped for “every state to sign the NPT” and for the Middle East to be a region “free of nuclear weapons.”
Though it severely undercuts the international non-proliferation regime to play fast and loose with the nuclear fuel cycle, the NPT is not entirely proliferation-proof. It is an imperfect document that is only as strong as the collective will of its signatories. The NPT has been circumvented and ignored before. In 1980, France aided Iraq’s nuclear program by selling it a research reactor and 165 lbs of highly enriched uranium.
Many non-nuclear weapons states resent that they must accept far tougher restrictions on their civilian nuclear activities than the nuclear weapons states. Arguably, Venezuela and Bolivia are acting within the bounds of the treaty, and Iran is just cashing in on its sovereign right to pursue “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” as guaranteed in Article IV of the NPT.
Links between Iran and alienated, leftist South American regimes no doubt leave U.S. officials with images of Contras and coups dancing in their heads. Yet if the United States wants to maintain control over proliferation not curtailed by the NPT, it should address the root causes through sustained dialog with Iran and its alleged suppliers in both bilateral and multilateral settings. Ominous public warnings by American policymakers will do little to bring the truth to light or resolve the situation diplomatically.