MANAGUA – Three years after the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Iran and Nicaragua, rumors and suspicions about the Islamic republic’s involvement here far outweigh any substantive advances in the relationship.
Iranian Ambassador Akbar Esmaeil Pour, in his first comments to Western media since arriving here in 2007, told The Nica Times last week that gossip about the scale of Iranian involvement here has been blown out of proportion.
The Iranian Embassy in Managua, he said, is “the smallest diplomatic mission in the entire American continent.”
The ambassador said the three-member mission, which operates out of a rented house in an upscale neighborhood in Managua, is just him, a cultural attaché and an economic advisor.
“I wish it were a bigger mission with more people. But that’s the way it is,” the soft-spoken ambassador said, in fluent Spanish.
Contrary to rumors that Iranians are flooding into Nicaragua without visas, Pour insists the “Iranian colony” here is less than 40 people, many of whom have been here for decades. In fact, he said, for the March 21 celebration of Iranian New Year, the entire Iranian community in Nicaragua was invited to the embassy – and all 36 of them showed up.
“Some are married to Nicas, some are businessmen. Some have been here for 30 years,” the ambassador said. “That’s the Iranian population that lives here. It’s just like the colony of foreigners from any other country.”
Despite its small size, the Iranian diplomatic mission here has created some big controversy. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously warned that the “Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua,” and several Washington think tanks have echoed concerns about Iran’s alleged influence and involvement in Nicaragua.
Last June, Moishe Smith, president of the influential Jewish advocacy group B´nai B’rith – a 165-year-old non-governmental group that claims to be the “global voice of the Jewish community” – traveled to Nicaragua and expressed his concern with “the size of the Iranian embassies that are being opened not only here in Nicaragua, but indeed the entirety ofLatin America.”
In an interview with The Nica Times, Smith said Iran’s influence in Nicaragua andLatin America is “a big concern of ours” (NT, June 12, 2009).
Some of that concern is based on the apparent enthusiasm of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for establishing stronger ties withLatin America. Since Ahmadinejad took office in August, 2005, his country has opened six new Latin American embassies in Colombia, Nicaragua, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay and Bolivia. Iran also has embassies in Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela.
But in many of those countries – Nicaragua included – Iran’s influence remains minimal. In Managua, the large Iranian flag fluttering over the embassy in a quiet residential neighborhood, a newly built mosque and several dozen Iranian-donated tractors tilling fields up north provide the only visible clues of Iran’s presence here.
In fact, not even those whose job it is to known the details of Nicaragua’s foreign affairs can cite specifics about the relationship with Iran.
“I believe that the Iranian presence here is a low-cost, low-intensity action by Iran to show the flag in America’s backyard,” said opposition lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, president of the National Assembly’s Commission on Foreign Relations. “It is part of Teheran’s strategy to distract the U.S.” But it seems even Iran has found the Sandinista government a difficult partner.
Previous Iranian promises to invest $350 in the construction of a deep-water seaport and $230 million in a hydroelectric dam have not made it off the drawing board, according to Pour, who says the holdup is due to unspecified “technical reasons.” And the Islamic Republic’s alleged “mega-embassy” here never made it off the ground.
In fact, the only thing Iran has managed to build here after three years in the country is a $1.5 million health clinic, which is reportedly almost completed and ready for inauguration.
“We are building a mega-clinic, not a mega-embassy,” Pour told The Nica Times with a smile.
Is U.S. Concern Justified?
Despite some U.S. concern about Iran’s growing presence in the hemisphere,Latin America analysts disagree on the level of importance the issue represents to the White House.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter- American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said he thinks Washington is “far more concerned about Iran’s presence inLatin America than any other extra-hemispheric government.”
He said the U.S. government is worried because “Iran’s involvement is opaque” and reliable information is scant.
“This murkiness has given rise to a lot of rumors and speculation,” Shifter told The Nica Times in an email this week. “Opinion is split, but some hardliners in the Obama administration and Congress assume the worst.”
He said some U.S. politicians think “Iran’s role in the region is far from benign,” adding, “That is not an illogical conclusion.”
The Iranian ambassador, however, insists the Islamic republic comes in peace. He says Iran’s presence in Nicaragua is in the spirit of peace, solidarity and revolutionary brotherhood.
“We have not come here against anybody,” Ambassador Pour told The Nica Times. “We have come to demonstrate our collaboration and solidarity with countries such as Nicaragua. We are inLatin America based on a relationship of win-win.”
Yet some analysts question what any country in Latin America has to win from accepting a friend request from Iran, which the United States has designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.
“For Iran, forging ties with Latin America is simply a way of poking the eye of the U.S., nothing else,” said Kevin Casas, senior fellow in foreign policy for theWashington, D.C.- based Brookings Institution. “There is hardly any economic interest for Iran; Iran hardly has anything to offer the region.”
As a result, Casas said, other than the “slightly baffling” case of Brazil, which has done an average of $1.3 billion in trade with Iran over the past five years and seems comfortable in that friendship, “I don’t see any country in Latin America – other than those who also want to poke the U.S. in the eye – running to greet Iran.”
Ortega, who has based his political career on poking the U.S. in the eye, was quick to embrace Ahmadinejad in 2007. But that relationship never became a group hug. In fact, in 2009 Nicaraguan exports to Iran totaled zero dollars, while importing only $103,055 in Iranian merchandise (To put that number in perspective, Nicaragua last year did twice as much trade with Bangladesh).
Ambassador Pour said he hopes the Iranian private sector will take an interest in Nicaraguan products in the future, especially beef and coffee.
But so far, economic relations between the two countries are negligible. In the end, Casas said, he thinks the lack of substance to the Islamic republic’s relations with Nicaragua and other Latin American countries makes Iran’s courting ofLatin America seem less startling that it did at first glance.
“I think the U.S. is slightly concerned about the presence of Iran inLatin America, but not overly so,” he said.