SAN DIEGO - Washington is becoming increasingly concerned that Iran is expanding its influence in Latin America. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been working to strengthen ties between Iran and Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and Brazil.
The question is should the Obama administration act swiftly to oppose these developments? Let us first consider why Iran, in the Middle East, wants to develop relationships with these Latin American countries. The alliance between Iran and Venezuela, two of the largest oil-producing nations, was the foundation for OPEC. With the exception of Nicaragua, oil is the key to the new liaisons between Iran and the Latin American nations.
In addition, most if not all of them, are concerned about unwanted U.S. intervention, either overtly or covertly within their national borders.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega thinks the United States is planning to overthrow his government because it allowed last year's coup in Honduras that ousted President Manuel Zelaya and installed a government built on repression. Dozens of Honduran resistance leaders have been tortured and killed by death squads.
Our longstanding economic blockade of Cuba continues to punish Cubans for supporting Fidel Castro in the 1959 revolution. And it is no secret that Washington despises Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
The United States' closest Latin American ally is the government of Colombia, which murders its critics, including hundreds of labor leaders.
But other South American countries have thrown off the yokes of tyranny, and democracy is emerging throughout the continent. The U.S. no longer wields the influence it did there 30 to 40 years ago.
In the 1970s and 1980s the United States backed military juntas in El Salvador, Uruguay and Honduras as they killed, tortured their opponents or simply made them disappear without a trace - the so-called "vanishing." The CIA engineered coups in Chile and Guatemala that overthrew democratically elected leaders and installed vicious dictators.
Now Iran has reason to believe it is in the crosshairs. In 2003, then-President George W. Bush placed Iran high on his list of potential targets, including it in his "axis of evil." Since then, highly placed officials in Washington have repeatedly talked about attacking Iran to keep it from developing nuclear weapons.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is advocating forcible regime change in Iran. He says we should go to war with Iran "not to just neutralize their nuclear program" but also to "...neuter that regime." Many Republicans in Congress are gunning for war with Iran to appease our close ally Israel.
But Iran is not a danger to the United States, any more than groups that opposed the Latin American dictatorships we supported in the 1970s and 1980s were a threat to our security. And ironically, in the infamous Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, the United States illegally sold arms to Iran in order to finance its covert aid to the Contras who opposed the former Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Several Latin American countries have formed a common bond based on threats against them by the United States. In a recent joint appearance on Iran's state TV, Ahmadinejad and Chavez referred to their "strategic alliance" against U.S. imperialism.
It is not just the socialist countries that raise Washington's ire. Nations such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Nicaragua are asserting their independence from the United States. ALBA - the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas - an alternative to the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas, is gaining strength among Latin American countries. ALBA promotes a socially oriented trade block rather than one strictly based on deregulated profit maximization.
Sanctioning or attacking Iran would undermine the pro-democracy movement challenging the Ahmadinejad regime, according to Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi.
We should pursue negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and stop the saber-rattling against Iran and Venezuela. President Obama should end the punishing blockade of Cuba that undermines our standing in Latin America.
Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Readers may write to her at: Thomas Jefferson School of Law, 2121 San Diego Avenue, San Diego, Calif. 92110.