Why is Israel's Shimon Peres in Brazil and Argentina? Iran.

For the first time in 40 years, an Israeli president is paying a state visit to Brazil. Israel President Shimon Peres began a week-long visit to Brazil and Argentina today. A key reason: Iran's growing influence in Latin America.

Eraldo Peres/AP
Israel's President Shimon Peres visits Brazil's capital, Brasilia, Tuesday, on a five-day visit to the country.

Whose backyard is Latin America now?

That’s the question that a flurry of leaders seem to be trying to answer on a series of visits to the region this month. Israeli President Shimon Peres began his week-long jaunt to Brazil and Argentina today with the stated purpose to “discuss the Iranian infiltration of the continent, opportunities to strengthen political and strategic ties between the countries, and how to increase economic cooperation.”

He’s right on time. The first state visit by an Israeli president to Brazil in 40 years and to Argentina in 20 comes just weeks before an expected trip by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the end of this month. Brazilian officials also say Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may visit them this month.

So how did the world’s fifth largest country, better known for samba and soccer stars than nuclear nonproliferation negotiations (to its long-simmering resentment), become a proxy playing field for Israeli-Iranian tête-à-tête?

First, Brazil and Argentina have Latin America’s largest Jewish populations. Second, “Brazil has maintained relations with Iran, even visiting Iran, and that’s been a source of concern not only for Israel but for the United States,” says Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy for the New York-based Council of the Americas. “[Mr. Peres] is trying to reach out to a swing state, if you will.”

Brazil prides itself on an independent foreign policy, leaning neither too close to the US nor to the region’s extreme leftists. For example, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defended Iran’s development of a nuclear program for energy purposes in September’s UN gathering in New York. “Brazil has always thought of itself as being a mediator,” Mr. Sabatini adds, “[and] that it’s better to, say, embrace than to isolate.”

The Iranian ambassador to Brazil, amidst the clout of Peres’s visit, spoke up today to defend his host country’s ability to invite whichever world leaders it please: “Today, Brazil is a strong, independent country, and, certainly, this independence does not [allow for] the intervention of other countries,” said Iranian ambassador Mohsen Shaterzadeh, according to the Rio de Janeiro-based daily O Globo.

Brazil has a sizable Shiite Muslim population in the states of Paraná and São Paulo, which is one reason the it maintains open relations with Iran, according to Sabatini.

Argentina: Remembrance of bombings linger
That’s not the Argentine way. It’s taken the opposite tack from Brazil and collaborated more so with the US in isolating Iran.

That’s both because of Buenos Aires’ “large, vocal [and] politically powerful” Jewish population, says Sabatini, and the not-too-distant memories of the 1992 bombings of the Israeli embassy there, which killed 29, and the ’94 car bombing that killed 85 at the Israelite Mutual Association. Argentina accuses Iran of masterminding that attack.

Mr. Peres will preside over a memorial service for the victims of the embassy attack in Buenos Aires.

Iran: Did it build that mosque in Managua?
Iran’s current intentions in Latin America have increasingly come under watch, though whether its proposed projects in the region have been carried out or are largely examples of unfulfilled promises is anyone's guess.

Since Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, Iran has opened new embassies in Colombia, Nicaragua, Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Boliva – and added ones to Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Venezuela, according to the Washington Post.

But rumors that Iran was building a massive new embassy in Managua seemed to stand up as well as the tottering city has through a history of earthquakes. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in May: “The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua.” But reporters scoured the city and just couldn’t find it. The Post concluded in July that the “mysterious, unseen giant embassy underscores how Iran's expansion into Latin America may be less substantive than some in Washington fear.”

Similarly, a gold-domed mosque that sprung up in Managua in September – Nicaragua has an estimated 300 Muslims – prompted rumors that Iran was providing the dinero. But the treasurer for the body that oversees the mosque denied to the Wall Street Journal that Iran contributed a single córdoba to la mezquita. In fact, he says all they promised was a prayer rug – and it never came.

But Iran’s ideological and political agenda does have more traction in some parts of Latin America – especially with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez – after Israel's incursion in Gaza. (Latin America’s Jews contend with rise in anti-Semitism: read more here.) Sabatini notes that Iran has a number of investments in Venezuela. There’s talk of opening an Iranian radio station in Bolivia. And Ahmadenijad has traveled to Latin America and met with Chávez several times.

“There’s very clearly [an Iranian] presence in the region,” Sabatini says.

But there’s also clearly pragmatic – not just geopolitical – reasons behind Peres's South America visit. He brought a delegation of 40 managers and business leaders with him, as he will sign a series of economic agreements with Brazil. Close ties with China have helped the Brazilian economy weather the global economic downturn. Brazil's GDP is expected to hit 3.5 percent next year.

Peres will also visit the Rio de Janeiro soccer stadium Maracanã ahead of Brazil’s hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs says the two events will offer opportunities for increased cooperation between Israel and Brazil in, among other things, the defense industry. That's a concern they each know well.

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