Argentina’s Milei Re-Aligns Buenos Aires Against Iran and Hezbollah

  • Middle East Policy Council

    The Middle East Policy Council is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization founded in 1981 to provide policymakers and the public with credible, comprehensive information and analysis on political, economic, and cultural issues pertaining to U.S.-Middle East.

Diego Austin

Diego Austin is a recent graduate of the George Washington University, where he earned a B.A. in international affairs with focuses on conflict resolution and the Middle East. He has interned at the Kurdistan Regional Government Representation in the U.S., the School for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian peace-building organization, and the Middle East Policy Council. He has studied in Israel-Palestine and travelled extensively throughout Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan.

Iranian influence has risen in Latin America, with Tehran seeking to undermine U.S. sanctions while its proxy Hezbollah continues its longtime practice of using the region to raise illicit funds and launch attacks. Hezbollah’s bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires (AMIA) in 1994 left lasting scars on Argentina

Argentina initially had a strong response to Iran and its proxy’s efforts: it withdrew its ambassador to Iran after the AMIA attack and downgraded relations in 1998. But, over the next two decades, Argentina’s approach towards Iran and Hezbollah grew soft and, some have accused, collaboratory. Since the election of Argentinian president Javier Milei in November 2023, however, Argentina has transitioned to a tougher approach as part of the administration’s pro-U.S. and pro-Israel foreign policy. 

Milei’s turn stands in contrast to nearly two decades of presidencies espousing the leftist, statist, and nationalist ideology of Peronism, which sought alternatives to U.S. influence. From 2003-2015, the Peronist presidencies of Nestor and Christina Kirschner turned Argentina away from the West following disillusionment with 1990s U.S.-backed neoliberal reforms, which preceded an economic crisis in 2001. Sidelining Washington, the Kirschners pursued closer ties with Venezuela, China, and Russia and conducted diplomacy with Iran, despite Hezbollah’s operations. Christina Kirschner even signed a 2013 memorandum with Iran to jointly investigate the AMIA bombing; however, the agreement was criticized for allegedly aiming to cover up Iran’s involvement in the bombing in exchange for a trade deal to import Iranian oil. 

The Peronist presidency of Alberto Fernandez from 2019-2023 largely continued this agenda, turning a blind eye towards Iran’s meddling in Latin America and improving relations with Venezuela. Fernandez’s stance towards Tehran was exemplified in his refusal in 2022 to send an IRGC-staffed plane grounded in Argentina to the U.S. while the crew was released. 

In contrast to the Peronists, Milei’s tougher stance towards Iran and Hezbollah aligns with a broader motive to move closer to the West. Amid a deepening economic crisis and overdependence on China, as well as a personal affinity for the West, Milei believes positioning Argentina in line with democratic countries will “re-establish…economic prosperity and political stability.” He has since withdrawn from BRICS and intends to replace the Argentinian peso with the U.S. dollar. As part of this broader pro-American shift, Iran and Hezbollah stand out as genuine foes and useful opportunities to deepen ties with the U.S. 

Increased Iranian influence among several regimes in the region is a source of concern for both Buenos Aires and Washington. A 2023 Iranian presidential visit to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela led to several energy and trade deals and cooperation agreements. This was preceded by cooperation and military agreements with Venezuela and Bolivia in 2021 and 2022. The 2022 electoral victories of leftist presidents Gustavo Petro in Colombia and Lula de Silva in Brazil further increased Iran’s regional sway. Petro has cooled relations with the U.S., severed diplomatic ties with Israel, and received an Iranian delegation, while Lula has defied U.S. pressure and increased diplomacy with Iran. 

Tehran’s expanding ties in Latin America help offset U.S. sanctions by reducing its global economic isolation, and criticism of U.S. sanctions featured heavily in the 2023 Iranian presidential visit in Latin America. While Iran’s economy has struggled under escalated sanctions following the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal, its outreach to interested regimes in Latin America has grown accordingly

Also driving cooperation between Milei and the U.S. against Iran is an increased worry of global Islamist terrorism amid the Gaza war and Hezbollah’s regional presence. For one, Iran and Hezbollah remain security threats in the Western Hemisphere, evident in recent arrests in Peru and Brazil of alleged Iranian and Hezbollah operatives aiming to attack Israeli or Jewish targets. Further, only hours after Iran’s April 13 attack on Israel, Argentina issued a “high” terrorist attack alert level and increased security at airports, border crossings, and Jewish institutions. Additionally, Hezbollah’s transnational criminal operations in Latin America help finance its activities in the Middle East. 

The U.S. and Argentina have made gestures indicating a tougher approach towards Iran and its proxy since Milei’s inauguration. In November 2023, several U.S. congressional representatives sent a letter to Milei saying Washington was ready to offer assistance against “terrorist groups and other security threats,” with Hezbollah and Iran specifically mentioned. The following month, the U.S. charged Hezbollah operative Samuel Salman El Reda with terrorism charges for his role in the AMIA bombing, ten days into Milei’s taking office. 

Meanwhile, Milei finally sent the IRGC-linked plane grounded in Argentina since 2022 to the U.S. Then, in March 2023, Argentina announced it would endorse UN reports condemning Iranian human rights violations days after the anniversary of the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing, signaling the potential for tougher UN voting patterns towards Iran. 

Argentina has also taken further action under Milei on both the 1992 and 1994 bombings. On April 12, Argentina’s highest criminal court officially ruled that Iran ordered both bombings and declared it a “terrorist state.” Less than two weeks later, Buenos Aires asked Interpol to arrest Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who is accused of being one of the masterminds behind the 1994 attack. 

Additionally, the CIA and Argentina’s equivalent, the AFI, have conducted high-level exchanges and worked towards forming a common agenda. The agencies are believed to be strengthening cooperation in intelligence and defense, where Hezbollah is a mutual foe. Amid the exchanges, it has been reported that the U.S. is closely monitoring Hezbollah-linked criminal organizations operating in Argentina’s tri-border area. The monitoring of terrorist organizations is also believed to have gained prominence in Milei’s agenda. Milei has largely purged AFI officials from the previous Peronist presidency, signaling his intent to align the intelligence agency with his pro-U.S. turn. 

Aside from his policy toward the U.S., Milei’s hard pro-Israel shift is a further anti-Iran signal. While visiting Israel in early February, Milei revealed his plans to move Argentina’s embassy to Jerusalem and described Hamas’s October 7 attack as “21st century Nazism.” 

Amid expanding Iranian influence and an entrenched Hezbollah presence, Milei’s first months in office signal that Argentina, in alignment with Washington, aims to take a tougher approach towards Tehran and its proxy. Further steps could see Argentina take on a more active role in existing regional counterterrorism frameworks.

  • Middle East Policy Council

    The Middle East Policy Council is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization founded in 1981 to provide policymakers and the public with credible, comprehensive information and analysis on political, economic, and cultural issues pertaining to U.S.-Middle East.

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