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Douglas Farah: “Nicaragua can learn a lot from Iran about evading sanctions”

Ebrahim Raisi's visit to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba: positioning Iran in the region, mutual protection among dictatorships, and evading sanctions

Daniel Ortega y su homólogo iraní, Ebrahim Raisí

Daniel Ortega and his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, during Raisi's visit to Nicaragua in June 2023. | Photo: Taken from El 19 Digital

Redacción Confidencial

21 de junio 2023


During Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's visit to Latin America, which concluded last Friday in Havana, political interests prevailed over economic and commercial agreements, according to Douglas Farah, consultant in international security. It was completely "strategic", as the Iranian president described it during his stop in Nicaragua on Tuesday, June 13.

Raisi sought to strengthen ties with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, all countries under heavy U.S. sanctions and which, like Iran, are seeking to "open up cracks" that will allow them to continue trading in the international market.

According to Farah, Iran "is a master" in evading sanctions from the international community. He points out that the country has been sanctioned "for several decades" and yet its economy remains afloat. This is especially attractive for Latin American dictators, who welcomed him with honors.

In the case of Nicaragua, the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo is "desperately seeking to break the economic isolation it has suffered because of its dependence on the U.S.," suggests Farah. "Iran can access a number of things through Nicaragua that it may not have access to from other countries, and Nicaragua can learn a lot from Iran about evading sanctions," he adds.

The Iranian leader also sought "positioning" in the region as well as political support in international forums "so that there is no condemnation for either one or the other", explains Farah in this interview he gave to CONFIDENCIAL and the program Esta Semana, broadcast on YouTube because of censorship imposed by the Nicaraguan regime.

What is the significance of the meetings held by the President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, with the dictators Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba? 

The common agenda that Iran brought to these countries –the dictatorships of Latin America– was to express solidarity and demonstrate that none of these countries is alone, despite the isolation of the United States and the European Union. And it's something that also helps Russia to keep its allies in the region talking about the sanctions, the injustices, the imperialist policies of the United States. I think Raisi reveals his purpose point by point when he talks about the common enemy in the hemisphere, which is the United States. For me the message is not so much economic but rather to show solidarity and to demonstrate that these dictatorships have friends, among themselves, and they can support each other.

In addition to the anti-imperialist discourse, during Raisi's visit to Nicaragua, he signed a series of agreements on technology, science and medicine, similar to others that have been signed in the past and which have not been implemented. What is the basis for Nicaragua's strategic relations with Iran?

The scope is obviously not economic, as neither of the two countries has the means to provide economic support. What Iran is looking for is a rapprochement in terms of intelligence, to be able to keep a closer watch on the United States. They want to support the Ortega dictatorship technologically to spy on its own people with the kind of technology that allows a totalitarian state to survive and spy on its people, and at the same time as it gathers information not only from the United States but also from its allies in the region. The economic part of the treaties is minimal. They have already signed, I think, 20, 30 or 50 agreements and none of them have been implemented because neither country has anything to offer in economic terms. They do have support in terms of intelligence training, military training, things that dictatorships need to survive, and Iran is the master in that.

These have been three visits by senior Iranian officials in just over a year to Nicaragua. The first was by the deputy minister of economic affairs, Mohsen Rezai in 2022, and in February of this year the foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who also accompanied Raisi this week. What can the Ortega dictatorship offer Iran, and what benefits can it get from these relations? 

Iran's agenda in the region is to be close enough to be able to attack the United States and its allies, if necessary, should there be a nuclear breakout. Iran wants to position itself well with its allies. I believe this strategic approach is a fundamental part, not in terms of large numbers but in terms of having access to specific strategic places. At the same time, part of the agenda is to make sure they protect each other in the United Nations, and in all international spheres, to make sure there is no condemnation for either one or the other –Russia, Iran, the Bolivarian. They want to maintain mutual protection in order to avoid sanctions. The third part of the agenda is precisely to avoid and evade sanctions. Iran is a master. It has been sanctioned decades ago and knows how to evade sanctions, and the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship is desperately looking for a way to break the economic isolation it has suffered due to its dependence in economic terms on the United States. So I think there is some mutual learning happening there. Iran can access a number of things through Nicaragua that it may not have access to from other countries, and Nicaragua can learn a lot from Iran about evading sanctions.

On his tour, Raisi urged the dictators to associate themselves with other countries to neutralize U.S.-imposed sanctions. And you describe how Iran has been successful in circumventing those sanctions. Is that replicable in the cases of Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela?

Cuba has obviously survived. Nicaragua, despite being, perhaps, the weakest of the partners in these circumstances, has also endured because they learned, as Venezuela learned, that if the political and military elites and the internal repression forces are more or less economically well off, the dictatorship can survive for many years. They are not trying to solve the problems of the people –hunger, education and health-- but rather are looking for the minimum to keep quiet those who might turn against the regime with some force. Iran has demonstrated a capacity to kill its own people and to repress its own people. Daniel Ortega has also demonstrated that capacity, Cuba has also demonstrated it for a long time, and so they are taking an approach to try to keep themselves from being internationally condemned, looking to open up the cracks. They don't have very big markets, but there are spaces they can move in to survive, and that's the minimum they are looking for right now.

In April, the New York Times reported on a leaked Pentagon document that revealed that the Nicaraguan Army explored with Iran the possibility of military cooperation to counter U.S. influence in Latin America... How is Ortega's rapprochement with Iran on security matters seen in Washington?

The rapprochement is real and Nicaragua wants to do it, but I think the chances of it being very important are minimal in terms of exposing the United States to a nuclear attack. Much more worrisome here is the relationship with Russia and the new relationship they now have with Beijing to be able to expand those military spaces in a much faster, much more sophisticated, and much more coherent way. But Iran is looking for strategic spaces where they can be, and they believe that they need a place where they can, for example, refuel planes, or a port where they can dock their ships without being turned back or without being sanctioned, in case things were to seriously deteriorate in terms of internal security in Iran. Iran doesn't have that much capacity, but it can employ certain kinds of ships, warships, certain things where it does have the capacity, but China and Russia have much more capacity and also much more resources to throw at the region.

What were the results of Raisi's visits to Venezuela and Cuba? Unlike with Nicaragua, for example, is there greater commercial exchange between Iran and Caracas?

Yes, but in real terms it is still minimal. Where we have detected a very important nexus is in terms of gold exports that go from Venezuela to Nicaragua and from Nicaragua to the international market because Nicaragua's gold is not internationally sanctioned, as Venezuela's gold is. And in this gold game Iran has always had an extraordinary capacity to move in the international markets. Gold brought to the market is in large part what allows the dictatorship to survive, both in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Iran has for decades been the master at avoiding sanctions, at moving the dirty gold that they collect from different parts of the world to the international market, without sanctions. I think that's a difference with Nicaragua because Nicaragua is in the gold game. Neither country has a great capacity to open markets and do those things. What they have are specialties and specific points where they can break the economic isolation of the sanctions that each is being subjected to at the moment.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.


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Redacción Confidencial

Redacción Confidencial

Confidencial es un diario digital nicaragüense, de formato multimedia, fundado por Carlos F. Chamorro en junio de 1996. Inició como un semanario impreso y hoy es un medio de referencia regional con información, análisis, entrevistas, perfiles, reportajes e investigaciones sobre Nicaragua, informando desde el exilio por la persecución política de la dictadura de Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo.