BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The Argentine government and members of the Bolivian opposition demanded answers Monday following the sealing of an opaque defense deal between Iran and Bolivia that raised concerns in South America’s southern cone. It could be a way for Tehran to increase its influence in the region.
The deal reached last week has raised particular concerns in Argentina, where prosecutors have long claimed Iranian officials were behind the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Iran denies any involvement in the attack.
Argentina’s foreign ministry sent a letter Monday to the Bolivian embassy in Buenos Aires “requesting information on the scope of talks and possible agreements reached during the official visit of (Bolivian Defense Minister) Edmundo Novillo to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said an official from Argentina’s foreign ministry, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
The note from the Argentine diplomatic headquarters came on the same day that members of the Bolivian opposition submitted a written request to the government demanding information on the scope of the agreement reached on July 20.
“The defense minister should explain the agreement and why it was signed with a country that has complications on the international stage, when Bolivia is supposed to be pacifist under the constitution,” Gustavo Aliaga, a Bolivian opposition lawmaker who is the secretary of the Defense and Armed Forces Committee in the Chamber of Deputies, told The Associated Press.
Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad Reza Ashtiani signed the memorandum of understanding on defense and security with Novillo in Tehran, according to a report by Iran’s state news agency IRNA.
“The Iranian minister said that Latin American countries are of particular importance in Iran’s foreign and defense policy, based on the importance of the highly sensitive South American region,” the IRNA report said.
Novillo has yet to provide details of the agreement since returning to Bolivia this weekend.
Aliaga said: “I only know what the press publishes.”
“They say (Iran) will give us drones. Others say they will give us missiles. This all sounds strange, all the more so considering that Iran is involved,” said the Bolivian opposition legislator. “I can’t understand why Bolivia gets involved in such a complex and difficult relationship.”
Senator Leonardo Loza, who is affiliated with the ruling Movement Toward Socialism party, praised the agreement.
“The country has the right to sign these agreements. The United States is the most dangerous country and Bolivia has the right to sign agreements with other countries,” said Loza, secretary of the Senate Security Committee.
According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), based in Washington, Iran could try to sell drones to Bolivia, noting that Ashtiani had said Tehran could help Bolivia control its borders and fight drug smuggling.
“In recent years, Iran has been trying to increase the number of countries buying Iranian drones,” the Institute wrote in a report.
The deal comes at a time when Iran has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the government of President Luis Arce in Bolivia has refused to condemn Moscow at the UN General Assembly.
Argentina’s foreign ministry demanded an explanation from La Paz after the DAIA, an organization representing the country’s Jewish community, warned of the “risks to the security of Argentina and the region” posed by the agreement, citing Tehran’s ties to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. Both the United States and Argentina have classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
In a press release, DAIA called on the Argentine government “to condemn this agreement and demand that Bolivia reconsider its decision”.
Former Argentine senator Federico Pinedo also expressed criticism. “We regret that a sister country like Bolivia has signed a security and defense agreement with Iran, a country in conflict with Argentina over terrorism,” he wrote on Twitter.
Bolivia and Iran had a close relationship during the administration of President Evo Morales (2006-2019), when then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Bolivia three times. This alignment sparked diplomatic squabbles with Argentina, most notably in 2011 when, at the urging of Buenos Aires, Bolivia expelled then-Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi. Argentine prosecutors consider Vahidi to be one of the masterminds behind the AMIA attack.
Valdez reported from La Paz, Bolivia.