On 25th of August 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, as President Bachelet reserved forty minutes to speak with Mr. Zarif personally.
Naturally, the Jewish community raised concerns, even before Mr. Zarif touched ground. One member of that community and also parliament, Daniel Farcas of the 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 the protests and pointed to Iran’s inflicting the death penalty on (accused) homosexuals.
These protests contain substance. Iran indeed sponsors Shiite Islam group and fierce enemy of Israel, Hezbollah, to push its interests, currently most forcefully in Syria. Yet, Mr. Farcas’s argument prudently 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 rather suggest 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 into play.
Indeed, 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 the line. Not so this time. Thus, my theory is that Mr. Zarif’s tour through Latin America, and his visit to Chile in particular, form 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 — euphemism for US sphere of influence. In this light, Iranian dignitaries wouldn’t have entered La Moneda without at least tacit approval from Washington.
And this arrangement could work Chile’s national interest. Indeed, 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, leading to Bolivia acquiring the support of the arguably most powerful woman in the world, Germany’s Angela Merkel. In zero-sum terms, this success for Bolivia humiliated Chilean diplomacy, especially considering Santiago’s much better relations with Berlin. I’m therefore happy to see that lessons have been learnt.
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 served US and British interests — divide et impera. As the US invasions in Iraq, born out of the arrogance of US neoconservatives, the lust for revenge of society, and the megalomania of both after their own 9/11, 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. I believe this point got lost on the Jewish community and likely the public generally, 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. I hope, Chilean diplomacy aspires to more than just representing Chilean capital. Iran, if handled correctly — now but even more in the future — will may develop into a lever to handle Bolivia’s demands and could provide support in the UN when it comes to matters such as Antarctica. 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.