Nicaragua, the Central American nation noted for its connection to Iran during a political scandal two decades ago, is coming under fresh scrutiny for its ties to Tehran. Back in the '80s, Oliver North and members of the Reagan Administration found themselves embroiled in controversy for selling arms to Iran and illegally funneling the profits to the anti-Communist rebels known as the contras, who were fighting the regime of Daniel Ortega. Now Ortega is once again President of Nicaragua and apparently forging new ties with Tehran.
The Nicaragua-Iran embrace includes four significant events since Ortega took office as the democratically elected leader of his country last January. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, to personally congratulate Ortega days after his Jan. 10 inauguration. Then Ortega borrowed a jet from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to visit Iran in June. Two months later, Iran and Venezuela pledged $350 million to build a seaport near Monkey Point on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast. (Tehran has also been cultivating an alliance with oil-rich Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.) And last Wednesday, the Nicaraguan foreign minister returned from Tehran, where he met with the foreign ministers of Syria, Cuba and Iran. There is now speculation that Nicaragua may support Tehran's bid for a seat in the U.N. Security council.
The State Department has been cryptic in its assessment of Iran's role in Nicaragua. "Iran's track record does not suggest it wishes to play a constructive role in the hemisphere," David Foley, a State Department spokesman on Middle East issues, said in an e-mail, then added in a telephone interview, "We're not adjusting our policy in Nicaragua depending on what Ahmadinejad is up to." The Bush Administration has not focused on Nicaragua much at all, despite the election of the leftist Ortega. Foley says merely that Washington "has a positive agenda in the hemisphere and we are working with our partners to strengthen democracy, promote prosperity and invest in people."
"Nicaragua is a place you can basically ignore as long as it is not doing anything significantly negative," says Dennis Jett, Dean of the International Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville. However, Jett and other analysts wonder whether Tehran's romancing of Managua may mark a change in that status. "You have to wonder what the Iranians are thinking as Mr. Bush goes through his bluster and threatens military action against Iran," says Jett. "It wouldn't surprise me that if they found a willing partner in Nicaragua that they would put some terrorist capability into Nicaragua and Venezuela, because it's that much closer to the United States if they have to use it."
Jett says, however, that if Ortega envisions making his country a launch pad for the Iranians, much the way Cuba was for the Soviets in 1962, he could be courting trouble. "I don't know that Nicaraguans would see it in their best interest to do that, because then they would become targets in a real way." Indeed, Jett says, "It would not only upset the United States but all the neighboring countries in Central America." Already, Iran's presence in Nicaragua has upset neighboring Honduras, where two newspapers recently reported the arrival of Iranian diplomats who entered Honduras from Nicaragua bent on photographing hotels, businesses, embassies and tourist sites.
Nevertheless, an alliance between Iran and Nicaragua could pose practical security problems for the U.S. "[Terrorist activities] could be much harder to detect than the Cuban Missile Crisis," says Jett. who notes that in the 1960s satellite photos detected the danger, but today a nuclear bomb can be hidden in a suitcase and go undetected. Neither Managua or Tehran has much to gain by an Iranian military presence, says Jett. "I would think they would just keep it covert and low key to the extent that they had one."
The real question for the moment is what Iran and Venezuela expect to get in return for their investment in Nicaragua. Next November, delegations from both countries plans to meet in Managua to discuss the seaport. "Nicaragua must give a 'quid pro quo' ... because the other two partners have not talked about [the seaport development being a] gift," says Roger Guevara, a Managua-based lawyer and former Nicaraguan ambassador to Venezuela, in an e-mail to TIME. "Certainly the Nicaraguan Government has to study what... they can offer," he says. "This includes a possibility of more than political and diplomatic support in the international forums."
A source familiar with the situation suggests that Iran may be positioning itself for a seat on the United Nations Security Council when the selection process take place next month. If elected, Iran would serve a two-year stint as a temporary member from the Asia region. To date, only Vietnam of the countries in that region has formally announced its candidacy for the post. Whether Nicaragua would support Iran in a bid for the Security Council remains unknown. Attempts to interview the ambassador proved unsuccessful.