One of the most dangerous places in the Western Hemisphere is the city of Warnes, Bolivia, which lies a few kilometers outside the country's industrial capital of Santa Cruz. There, set back in an open field off a bustling highway, is the new regional defense school of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, or ALBA—the eight-member economic and geopolitical bloc founded by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro nearly a decade ago.
Since its launch last spring, the school has become the object of fevered speculation throughout the region concerning its potential role in the indoctrination and training to some of the most radical elements in the Americas. But perhaps the most tangible, and troubling, aspect of the facility is the role now being played there by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iran, itself an observer nation in ALBA, is believed to have provided at least some of the seed money for the academy, and no less senior a figure than its Defense Minister, Ahmad Vahidi, presided over the facility's formal inauguration last May. Latin American officials now estimate that between 50 and 300 "trainers" from Iran's feared clerical army, the Revolutionary Guards, are present in Bolivia—with at least some said to be providing indoctrination at the facility.
Iran's involvement in the ALBA school serves as a microcosm of the Iranian-Bolivian relationship writ large. Since 2007, when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first visited Bolivia, the ties between Tehran and La Paz have deepened dramatically.
Bolivia, for example, is fast emerging as a source of strategic resources for the Islamic Republic. Iran is now rumored to be mining for uranium in no fewer than 11 locations outside of Santa Cruz, close to where the ALBA school is located. Not coincidentally, rumor also has it that the now-infamous Tehran-Caracas air route operated jointly by Conviasa, Venezuela's national airline, and Iran's state airline, Iran Air, could be extended to Santa Cruz in the near future—a sure sign of Iranian interest in the area. Additionally, a series of cooperation agreements concluded in 2010 between La Paz and Tehran have made Iran a "partner" in the mining and exploitation of Bolivia's lithium, a key strategic mineral with applications for nuclear weapons development.
Significantly, the extent of this activity—and of Bolivia's strategic resource wealth writ large—remains shrouded in mystery. That is because while the mineral deposits of Venezuela, Iran's most prominent partner in the region, are comparatively well-known, those of Bolivia are not. This, according to regional observers, makes Bolivia a "black box" in terms of its resource potential—and consequently its future importance to the Iranian regime.
What is clear is that, at least for the moment, the Islamic Republic has placed considerable value on its burgeoning ties to Bolivia. In exchange for access from the Morales government, Iran has proffered hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to the Bolivian government, agreed to $1 billion-worth of joint commercial and industrial projects, and offered to sell warplanes and helicopters to the Bolivian military. (To date, however, most of these economic overtures have not materialized.)
Iran's diplomatic presence in Bolivia has also deepened, with signs that its embassy in La Paz is being expanded under the watchful eye of Bolivia's federal police. Bolivia has also become a prominent destination for Iran's latest public diplomacy effort, HispanTV. The television channel, a Spanish-language analogue to the regime's influential English-language PressTV, was formally launched with considerable fanfare by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this year.
Significantly, these contacts could be just the beginning. Over the past several years, Venezuela has served as Iran's most stalwart ally in the Americas—and its gateway into the region. As part of those ties, Tehran and Caracas have made common cause on everything from Iran's nuclear ambitions to a shared opposition to American influence. But that partnership is now in considerable flux.
In a speech last July, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez officially confirmed what many had already suspected; that he was suffering from an aggressive form of cancer. Although Chavez has struggled to continue governance as normal since then, it is widely understood that his condition is increasingly grave. With Venezuela slated for presidential elections this October, the illness—and Chavez' lack of a clear-cut political successor—has raised real questions about the future of his regime, and of the radical "Bolivarian" revolution that over the past decade has made ideological bedfellows of Tehran and Caracas.
In response, the Iranian regime is stepping up its engagement with other allies in Latin America, as demonstrated by Ahmadinejad's very public four-country tour of the region this past January. And because of the sympathetic nature of its regime, as well as its presumed resource wealth, Bolivia figures prominently in Tehran's calculus. Indeed, regional experts now estimate that Bolivia could end up becoming as significant as Venezuela for Iran, both as a source of strategic resources for its widening nuclear program and as a hub for the Iranian regime's expanding asymmetric activities in the Americas.
So far, U.S. officials have paid little attention to Iran's engagement with Bolivia, preferring to see it as both nascent and disorganized. It may still be. But there is no mistaking the fact that Iran's radical regime sees the anti-American government of Evo Morales as a natural strategic partner—and that it is actively seeking to increase its activities there. It is equally clear, moreover, that Morales has been receptive to Tehran's overtures, and has aided and abetted Iran's entry into his country. The results already have strengthened Iran's foothold in the Western Hemisphere, and given it access to potentially significant assistance for its nuclear program.
In the process, they also have presented a challenge to U.S. policy. Policymakers in Washington, preoccupied with curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, have not yet formulated a serious strategy to contest and dilute Iran's growing global influence, or its presence in the Americas. But Tehran's burgeoning ties to La Paz increasingly have made clear that, if they hope to comprehensively isolate the Iranian regime, they will need to do so—and soon.