When Chile Meets Iran

By Christian Scheinpflug

This post appeared elsewhere in a slightly different version on August 29, 2016.

On August 25 an Iranian delegation visited Chile. Both foreign ministers, Chile’s Heraldo Muñoz and Iran’s Mohammad Zarif, discussed commerce and “exchanged visions on international and regional scenarios,” as well as the fight against terrorism. La Moneda saw the visit as more than a courtesy call, because President Bachelet reserved 40 minutes to speak with Mr Zarif personally.

Naturally, the Jewish community raised concerns well before Mr Zarif arrived. One Jewish member of parliament, Daniel Farcas of Popular Party for Democracy (PPD), felt a “slap in the face” when Ms Bachelet met a representative of a “government that promotes terror all over the world.” Groups like Movilh, representing the LGBT community, joined in and pointed to Iran’s inflicting the death penalty on (alleged) homosexuals.

These protests are not baseless. Iran indeed sponsors Shiite Islam group and Israel’s fierce enemy Hezbollah to push its interests, currently most forcefully in Syria. Yet, Mr. Farcas’ argument neglects the killing of civilians when Israel periodically obliterates Gaza. Israel’s supporters claim that these actions form part of the country’s legitimate self-defence. But ‘several hundred’ dead children against 56 dead Israeli military personnel in the 2014 offensive suggest rather that the country has hardly more scruples than its enemies. Israeli veterans agree.

The Jewish community’s criticism therefore may claim less currency regarding state sponsored violence, but more in a geopolitical context. Two powerful nations are currently battling over regional hegemony — and here Washington comes in.

The silence from the White House regarding the reception of the Iranian delegation by one of the most committed US allies, Chile, spoke volumes. Washington usually raises its voice (and sanctions and arms) when one of its allies seems to step out of line. Not so this time. Thus, I hypothesize that Mr Zarif’s Latin America tour, particularly his visit to Chile, forms part of the nuclear deal closed earlier this year. Although the White House emphasises the deal’s restrictions, President Obama also suggested Iran could become part of the international community — meaning the US-guided, liberal part of the globe. In this light, Iranian dignitaries wouldn’t have entered La Moneda without Washington’s at least tacit approval.

And this arrangement could work for Chile’s national interest. As Jorge Pizarro and Hernán Larraín from the Senate’s external relations commission correctly observed, Chile should use the occasion to transmit its point regarding the situation in the Atacama to Iran, because so far only Bolivia has done so. This kind of diplomacy was neglected for too long, enabling Bolivia acquiring the support of the world’s supposedly most powerful woman, Germany’s Angela Merkel. In zero-sum terms, this success for Bolivia humiliated Chilean diplomacy, especially considering Santiago’s much better relations with Berlin. Luckily, Chile seems to have learned that lesson.

Furthermore, Iran is ascending to regional power status. It actually always has been, but the Iranian Revolution disposed a US puppet, and therefore Washington punished the country by, amongst other measures, propping up Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. This way, Iraq and Iran weakened each other without either one being able to become a hegemon, which still served US and UK interests. As the US invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan — born out of neoconservative arrogance, society’s lust for revenge — have upset that balance, the remaining power, Iran, must be accommodated to wean it off Chinese and Russian influence.

Thus Chile plays its part in Washington’s grand strategy. A strong Iran that talks to US allies will eventually be more susceptible to US influence, which is better than a strong Iran talking only to Russia and China, for whom Israel is by far not as important. This point got lost on the Jewish community, but Chilean-Iranian relations constitute part of Israel’s security, because Chile functions as a node in the US sphere of influence.

Within the grand scheme of things, and in the more limited Chilean national interest, Iranian engagement opens up opportunities. Chilean diplomacy may aspire to more than just representing Chilean capital. Iran, if handled correctly — now but even more in the future — may develop into a lever to handle Bolivia’s demands and could provide support in the UN. But Chile must also consider that further engagement will draw it deeper into the Middle East. Hence, the government should facilitate Middle East programmes in universities and the study of international relations more generally.

The voices of minority groups play a crucial part. Their stinging criticism should remind all too liberally minded policy-makers that we aren’t family. Iran, like any other country, is not a friend — it just might become a partner.

Christian is a columnist at Chile Today. He’s also director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and co-editor of E-IR’s book on International Relations Theory. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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