Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
The passing of Hugo Chavez last week shouldn't have come as much of a surprise to most observers. The death watch for the long serving Venezuelan strongman had been in effect since at least mid-2011, when he confirmed longstanding rumors by publicly announcing that he was being treated for an aggressive form of cancer.
Still, the departure of Latin America's self-proclaimed "Bolivarian" leader is momentous. Since taking office in 1999, Chavez has left a profound—and profoundly negative—mark on the Western hemisphere. His stewardship has seen the rejuvenation of a corrosive vision of "21st century socialism" built around ruinous economic practices and opposition to the United States. Yet it is Chavez's role on another front, in facilitating the entry of the Islamic Republic of Iran into the Western hemisphere, which ranks as one of his most notorious accomplishments.
To be sure, Iran's regional inroads date back to the mid-1980s, when Iran established its first embassy in the region in Havana and mobilized its proxy Hezbollah to set up shop in the tri-border area where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay intersect. But the Islamic Republic's presence in Latin America has expanded exponentially under Chavez.
Over the past several years, thanks in large part to the personal bonds between Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuela has served as Iran's gateway to the region, opening diplomatic doors and facilitating economic contacts between Tehran and an array of sympathetic South American regimes. This assistance has been instrumental for the Iranian regime, allowing it to consolidate support for its nuclear effort and maintain international trade even as the sanctions being levied against it by the United States and Europe have intensified.
But now, Chavez's death—and the political jockeying that is sure to follow his passing, both within Venezuela and throughout Latin America—could call all of that into question.
Of course, Iran's leaders have not been caught totally unprepared. In truth, the Iranian regime has planned for some time for a post-Chavez era, and the past two years have seen it expand its political ties to the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, as well as to a number of other regional players (most recently the administration of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina). Iran has had considerable success in doing so, broadening its strategic footprint in the region in the process.
Even so, the departure of Chavez is bound to be a blow to Tehran. Without its most reliable broker, Iran now faces a region in profound political flux. During his 14 years in office, Chavez had served as the champion of anti-Americanism in Latin America. Now that mantle of leadership, coveted by power-hungry regional leaders like Ecuador's Correa, is up for grabs. So, too, is the prevailing attitude toward Tehran.
Coming weeks will see the emergence of a new regime in Venezuela—one that, by all accounts, will look strikingly similar to the one that preceded it. Indeed, late last year, an ailing Chavez anointed his anti-American vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his heir apparent, thereby guaranteeing a preservation of his "Bolivarian" ideas. But Maduro now faces a snap election next month, and could see his power diminished by internal challengers as well as an increasingly capable Venezuelan opposition. In other words, for the first time in nearly 15 years, the current regime's hold on power isn't assured beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Neither is the relationship between Caracas and Tehran. While Maduro can be counted on to preserve Venezuela's revolutionary character, the closeness of its ties to the Iranian regime is suddenly an open question—one made all the more acute by the fact that Chavez's Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will also leave the political scene in just a few months, when his term in office ends this June.
Given these uncertainties, it's a safe bet that coming weeks will see Iran's Latin American diplomacy get a shot in the arm, as officials in Tehran seek to shore up their position in the region—a position which has, quite suddenly, turned precarious.