The study of asymmetric warfare has become a favored topic at war colleges and security conferences that analyze the fighting tactics of groups like Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force, whose purpose is to export an Islamic “revolution” to foreign countries. But what receives less scrutiny is the far more effective “soft subversion” perpetrated by dysfunctional states like Iran and Venezuela against those nations that check their aggression.
As the U.S. and its allies have increased scrutiny on these foreign insurgent groups in places like Iraq and Latin America, their sponsors have realized that it is more effective to conduct stealth public relations campaigns than to engage in stealth combat operations. The latest example was the comprehensive lobbying effort undertaken by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to win votes among Latin American states in support of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, or UDI, at the United Nations.
What Israel’s enemies have deduced after numerous failed military attacks against the tiny nation is that it is much easier to win a propaganda war by joining forces with ideological allies of radical political parties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Yasser Arafat had spent as much time in Moscow, Berlin, Bucharest, and Beijing as he had in Ramallah, cultivating support among the predominant communist and socialist parties at the time. This support served as both a diplomatic shield and a propaganda support network ever since the international Communist boycott of Israel after 1967.
The leftward shift that has taken place in Latin America in recent years has provided a new opportunity for the erstwhile diplomatic outcasts of the Middle East to gain new allies on the cheap. Since he was elected in 1999, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has worked to become the social ganglion in the region, connecting fellow despots in the Middle East with his allies in Latin America.
Chavez’s early entreaties to Iran’s former President Mohammed Khatami were the first of these new alliances to pay off. Before Chavez was elected in 1999, oil prices hovered around $10 a barrel, and Venezuela was considering dropping out of OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. But Chavez took advantage of the anti-Americanism that he shared with Khatami to form a “cartel within the cartel” inside OPEC, which helped to triple oil prices from $12 to $36 a barrel by 2000.
To repay his new ally, Khatami successfully lobbied for Chavez to host OPEC’s Second Summit in Caracas in September of 2000. The last time Venezuela had hosted an OPEC summit was in 1975 when the cartel had declared an oil embargo against the West for supporting Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Besides providing the Middle East dictatorships with an outspoken Western ally willing to denounce Israel and pull ambassadors even before they do, Chavez has also opened his country to Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force personnel to establish a foothold in the region and to train and indoctrinate fellow travelers among the Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian Diaspora communities living there. He and current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have also often talked of their plans to form “a global progressive front” to support “the ideological kinship of the left and revolutionary Islam”—although their relationship is more dependent on mutual diplomatic support than the exchange of terrorist tactics and training.
In addition, Chavez has been willing to send petro-largess to his Middle Eastern allies to fund their mutually-beneficial propaganda efforts, spending a reported $1 million in 2006 for posters used at a Hezbollah “victory” rally in Beirut that showed him alongside Hassan Nasrallah with captions that read, “Israel needs to be judged for its crimes” and “Thank you Chavez.”
There had long been a working relationship between Middle Eastern and Latin American “revolutionaries,” from Arafat and Castro’s guerrilla training camps in Cuba to Argentinean Montoneros providing mobile plastic explosives units to Lebanese terrorists in the 1970s. But more recently, the partnership has focused on fomenting anti-Israeli sentiment in the West.
The Gaza flotillas were just the latest effort in this resurgent network, and were effective at first in focusing opprobrium on Israel for its defensive maneuvers against them. It was not until Dutch journalists exposed the flotilla groups’ links to Hamas and other terrorist groups that many in the European press ceased to treat them with legitimacy.
An email uncovered by a Dutch investigative reporter showed the underlying motives of the flotilla. Written by the chairman of Free Gaza Holland, Rob Groenhuizen, the email stated:
“This game about humanitarian aid is part of a tremendous plot — something that Israel tries to postpone as long as possible — but with every uprising in the Arab world and each mistake Israel makes, the end is coming nearer. … Everybody knows Israel is not sustainable.”
Groenhuizen is a convicted terrorist, and a former member of the Dutch affiliate of the German Marxist terrorist group, Red Army Faction. Groenhuizen’s Free Gaza Holland NGO was also affiliated with the Palestinian terrorist group, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). When this information was revealed, a number of Dutch journalists that were scheduled to be on board the flotilla backed out.
Hugo Chavez had provided the propaganda offensive following the first flotilla incident in May of 2010, saying on national TV that the Mossad—Israel’s foreign intelligence agency—was out to kill him and that the “genocidal State of Israel” was funding his political opposition. Chavez ended the diatribe by cursing Israel, saying, “I want to condemn from the bottom of my soul, from the bottom of my guts: Damn you State of Israel! Damn you terrorists and assassins!”
While Chavez has been a valuable ally to his Middle Eastern partners, his incendiary rhetoric has made him radioactive in diplomatic circles. The real break in the Middle Eastern-Latin American alliance came when Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in 2005 and agreed to become a player in Middle East peace.
As president of Brazil, Lula was an enigma to many observers in the West. He established legitimacy and political capital by simply exceeding expectations for a left-wing ex-labor leader, keeping the economic behemoth Brazil on a steady rudder at a time when world commodities prices and biofuel markets offered the country a financial bonanza.
But while he risked a revolt for his pro-market policies, Lula was able to appease his left-wing base by allowing its more rabid representatives to have a large influence over Brazil’s foreign policy. Likewise, Lula founded, along with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, the Foro de Sao Paulo, a consortium of far-left political parties and guerrilla groups in Latin America whose purpose was to fight against free market policies after the fall of the Soviet Union. Lula’s astute management of this ideological cognitive dissonance within his party and government allowed him to maneuver more easily on the world stage, even while embracing Iran and meddling in the Middle East peace process.
Undoubtedly, Lula had an economic motivation to ally with international pariahs like Iran. Brazil’s annual trade with Iran grew 40 percent to $2 billion shortly after Lula was elected in 2003, and Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, won a bid to do oil exploration in the Tusan block of the Iranian Persian Gulf. And when Ahmadinejad visited Brazil in 2009 he came with 200 Iranian business leaders in tow. But it was also his desire to win a place for Brazil on the UN Security Council and his ability to thwart the diplomatic intentions of the United States that motivated Lula’s foray into Middle East politics.
A 2008 Wikileaks cable showed that the U.S. was less than enthusiastic about Lula’s Middle East diplomacy. U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Clifford Sobel wrote, “Harmful policies and equivocal statements from Brazil on the region hamper US policy in the Middle East.” Lula’s initiative to host the summit between Arab and South American countries was also unwelcome. “Brazil does not understand Middle East affairs, it’s only joining the ‘anti-Israel’ choir,” and using clichés and banalities, wrote Sobel. An Egyptian diplomat was also quoted saying that Lula’s Middle East freelancing was “transparent” and only designed to gain support for a spot on the Security Council.
Supporting the UDI
Brazil under Lula became the first to unilaterally endorse a Palestinian state (inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders) in December 2010, which at the time undermined U.S. negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He was also responsible for convincing the presidents of Argentina and Uruguay to endorse a Palestinian state, and prompted Uruguay to sponsor two summits in support of the proposal.
The Palestinians’ quiet campaign in Uruguay has since come under greater scrutiny after Iran’s charge d’affaires, Hojjatollah Soltani, denied the Holocaust in a public speech at the Uruguay-Sweden Cultural Center in Montevideo. “They (the Nazis) killed perhaps a few thousand Jews, but that number of millions … is a lie,” Soltani told those gathered at the event.
Lula was also the progenitor of the first Summit of South American-Arab Countries (ASPA by its Portuguese and Spanish initials) in 2005, where he assured Abbas that he would become even more helpful once he left office.
Lula’s influence with Argentina’s left-wing president Cristina Kirchner was key to the UDI effort. Argentina is home to Latin America’s largest Jewish community, making it a challenge for the lobbying effort. But a simultaneous diplomatic effort by Walid Muaqqat, a veteran Palestinian diplomat in the region, convinced the Argentine government to announce its endorsement of a Palestinian state, also in December 2010.
The Washington Post reported in February that this “was a strategy Palestinian diplomats repeated across the continent last year, taking advantage of the region’s growing economic ties to the Arab world and eagerness to demonstrate its independence from Israel’s powerful ally, the United States.” The Argentina endorsement, coupled with that of Brazil, started a “me too” cascade, with countries like Chile, a strong ally of the U.S. and headed by a right-wing government, quickly announcing their endorsement of statehood as well.
The Washington Post article also quoted Nabil Shaath, the Commissioner of International Relations for Fatah, saying, “Our next target is Western Europe. I think there is a lot of readiness in Western Europe to recognize an independent Palestinian state.” Indeed, the PA next set its sights on the EU, interested in building upon its success in Latin America to convince enough members to also support the UDI.
Soft Subversion at Play
The vote for Palestinian statehood at the UN is largely symbolic and designed to create an international impetus for a boycott and divestment campaign to pressure Israel to accept untenable borders in any final agreement. But the passage of the UDI will upend decades of diplomatic work by the United States and Europe to forge an agreement that first requires recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and might actually stand a chance of creating a sustainable peace deal. The speed at which both the U.S. and Israel adapt to counter these soft subversion tactics will determine whether there is any chance for peace, or whether misguided diplomacy, once again, will lead to war.
Jon B. Perdue is the director of Latin America programs at the Fund for American Studies, and is the author of the forthcoming book, The War of All the People.