ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Bolivia facing questions over shadowy defense pact with Iran

Opposition lawmakers in La Paz and authorities in Argentina demand details of deal signed last week, amid speculation Tehran looking to expand list of clients purchasing drones

View of the Bolivian Legislative Assembly building in La Paz, Bolivia Thursday, May 4, 2023. (AP/Juan Karita)
View of the Bolivian Legislative Assembly building in La Paz, Bolivia Thursday, May 4, 2023. (AP/Juan Karita)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The Argentine government and members of Bolivia’s opposition demanded answers Monday following the sealing of an opaque defense agreement between Iran and Bolivia that raised concerns in South America’s Southern Cone that it could be a way for Tehran to boost its influence in the region.

The deal reached last week has particularly raised concerns in Argentina, where prosecutors have long alleged that Iranian officials were behind the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Iran has denied any involvement in the attack.

Argentina’s Foreign Ministry sent a note to the Bolivian embassy in Buenos Aires on Monday “requesting information about the scope of the discussions and possible agreements reached during the official visit of (Bolivian Defense) Minister Edmundo Novillo to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” an official at Argentina’s Foreign Ministry said, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

The note from Argentina’s diplomatic headquarters came on the same day as members of Bolivia’s opposition submitted a written request to the government demanding information about the scope of the agreement sealed July 20.

“The defense minister must explain the agreement and why it has been signed with a country that has complications on the international stage when Bolivia is supposed to be pacifist according to its 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 defense and security memorandum of understanding with Novillo in Tehran, according to a report from Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA.

“The Iranian minister said Latin American countries are of special significance in Iran’s foreign and defense policy based on the importance of very sensitive South American region,” according to the IRNA report.

Novillo has yet to give any details on the agreement since returning to Bolivia over the weekend.

Aliaga said “all I know is what the press publishes.”

“They say that [Iran] will give us drones. Others say they will give us missiles. All of this sounds strange, even more so considering it involves Iran,” said the Bolivian opposition lawmaker. “I can’t understand why Bolivia is getting involved in such a complex and difficult relationship.”

Iran-made drones are displayed in a ceremony marking their handing over to the nation’s army, April 20, 2023. (Iranian Army via AP)

Sen. Leonardo Loza, who is aligned 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 nations,” said Loza, who is secretary of the Senate’s Security Committee.

According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), based in Washington, Iran could be seeking to sell drones to Bolivia, noting that Ashtiani had said Tehran could help Bolivia with controlling its borders and combating drug smuggling.

“Iran has sought to increase the number of countries that buy Iranian drones in recent years,” the Institute wrote in a report.

The agreement 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 explanations from La Paz after the DAIA, an organization representing the country’s Jewish community, warned of the “risks for the security of Argentina and the region” due to the agreement, noting Tehran’s ties to Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. Both the United States and Argentina have designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

People gather outside the AMIA Jewish community center asking for “Justice” in the death of a prosecutor who had accused Argentina’s president of a criminal conspiracy, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In a news release, DAIA called on Argentina’s government “to condemn this agreement and demand that Bolivia reconsider its decision.”

Former Argentine Sen. Federico Pinedo also voiced criticism. “We deplore that a sister country like Bolivia has made 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 government of President Evo Morales (2006-2019), with then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting Bolivia three times. This alignment caused diplomatic spats 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 one of the masterminds behind the AMIA attack.

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