September 20, 2007

The Mystery of Bolivia-Iran Relations

I don't get Evo Morales. I mean, I understand that he is knee-jerk anti-American and has a man-crush on Hugo Chavez, but I don't get why he is so careless at times. So seemingly myopic.
Case in point: Iran. Iran is a country that has managed to piss-off the Americans, Europeans, most Middle Eastern countries, and even the Russians and the Chinese. It is a country that kidnaps, for what else would you call it, innocent expats that return home for a visit with the family. A country the US claims, with justification, is actively supporting combat operations against US troops in Iraq and NATO troops in Afghanistan. A country that is known to support terrorists organizations such as Hezbollah. A country whose leader has expressed the wish that Israel should be wiped off the map. A country that is pursuing a nuclear weapons program and is in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. A country that has such bad relations with the US that many observers around the world are already beating war drums.

For Bolivia, this last point is particularly important. The US is the second most important market for Bolivian exports (behind Brazil) as well as a significant source of foreign assistance. Just as Venezuela is Bolivia's political and ideological patrĂ³n, the US is a major component of Bolivia's economic lifeline. US-Bolivian relations may not be at their most enlightened right now, but Bolivia is still significantly dependent on the US. Witness Alvaro Garcia Linera's recent visit to the US, lobbying for an extension of trade preferences.

Given the dynamics of the US-Bolivian relationship, why would the Bolivian government be cozying up to Iran at this particular time and run the risk of further eroding its relationship with the United States? One potential "benefit" for Bolivia could be further cementing its relationship with Venezuela (as there is no tangible benefit that a relationship with Iran can provide that will not be off-set by a break in US-Bolivia relations). But what can Iran do for Bolivia? Neither Iranian military nor political support count for much given Venezuela's competing influence (as well as the Chinese influence in the arms arena). Sure, Bolivia can talk about Iranian investment in Bolivian energy, but Iran is not the only country that is willing to do this.

It seems, then, that Bolivia is doing this only for the benefit of Venezuela (because Chavez's stock rises in the eyes of Ahmedinejad if Venezuela is able to "deliver" countries to Iran). Worse, not only does Bolivia not gain anything, its own interests are held at significant risk because, whether it wants to admit it or not, Bolivia needs the US to stay at least economically engaged. The US is not going to break relations over any one issue, but an accumulation of "issues" may drive the US to take a harder stance and that can only be bad for Bolivia. I don't see how Bolivia "wins" in this scenario, particularly given the dangers of further isolating the US. It's just poor statecraft.

No comments: