Regional Security, Not Iran, a Primary Focus in South America

South America's leaders are focusing on their own country's security issues.

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CARTAGENA, Colombia — The Sixth Summit of the Americas wrapped up Sunday without an overall consensus or a final declaration on how to address policy issues in the hemisphere. Yet, according to its host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the gathering was "not a failure," since no topics were prohibited and all were discussed "in a respectful, but direct and frank manner."

Indeed, regional leaders pushed for open debate on divisive themes such as Cuba's inclusion in future summits and anti-drug policies. Still, one serious global concern—an issue that could have drawn stark lines among summit participants—was left off the table: Iran.

[Iran Talks: High Stakes, Low Expectations]

U.S. diplomats held talks over Iran's nuclear program Saturday with the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany in Istanbul. However, as President Obama himself joined other heads of state in Cartagena to deal with the Western hemisphere's own pressing issues, problems in Iran, and even elsewhere in the Middle East, appeared to be out of sight.

When talking about their economies, summit participants celebrated the region's recent gains and its increasingly outward-looking vision for trade and business. But as regional citizens continue to face the daily threat of ongoing violence and organized crime, Latin American leaders were focused on finding solutions for the internal security obstacles.

"Compared to the challenges the countries are facing, [Iran] is just not even on the radar screen," says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

"When countries of the region think about the security issues that most affect their country, they're thinking about the tens of thousands of people that are killed for drug-related violence and other crime. The hypothetical threat that Iran might pose to them is just not something that they are focusing on."

[Southern Exposure: Iran, Terror Groups Setting Up Shop in South America]

That's not to say Iran is not involved in the region. As sanctions increasingly isolate the nation from the rest of the world, Iran has sought support from a handful of countries in Latin America, especially Venezuela. Tehran has nearly doubled its number of embassies in the region since 2005, the same year Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez—who sat out this weekend's summit for health reasons—along with some of the region's other left-leaning leaders have bonded with Iran over shared interests.

According to congressional testimony given in March 2011 by Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. Southern Command, these shared interests include "avoiding international isolation, access to military and petroleum technologies and the reduction of U.S. influence" in the region.

Earlier this year, Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador, all nations whose leaders have been particularly outspoken about the role that the United States has in the region.

Elsewhere in Latin America, relationships with Iran are less than friendly and weakening. For example, even though her predecessor Lula da Silva had opposed international sanctions on Iran and tried to serve as meditator between Iran and its other global foes, current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has pulled away since taking office.

According to Arnson, though the issue of Iran is not salient compared to other issues in Latin America, its inconsistent relationship with the region highlights the already existent divisions in attitudes toward the United States. Though countries like Venezuela also reject the influence of the United States worldwide, she says, the broader region does not share Iran's hostilities.

Arnson also argues that due to the lack of consensus over how to deal with Iran, such a discussion would only have added to the tensions at the summit, already spurred by controversies like Cuba's participation. "It's one more issue on which there is a huge divide between the United States and the rest of the region," she says.