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Iran Seeks to Increase Footprint in Bolivia with Drones

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General view of Iran’s defense industry achievement exhibition, August 23, 2023, in Tehran. In late July 2023 Bolivia confirmed its interest in acquiring Iranian drones. (Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP)

In an attempt to expand its influence in Latin America, Iran is strengthening its push for power through strategic agreements, such as the recent security and defense cooperation treaty signed with Bolivia, which poses a risk to peace and stability in the region, security experts say.

The treaty, signed on July 26 between Iran’s Defense Minister Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani and his Bolivian counterpart Edmundo Novillo, provides for the deployment of Iranian-made drones in Bolivia, which Novillo said would be used to counter drug trafficking and monitor borders, official Iranian news agency IRNA reported.

In a desperate move, Iran is attempting to increase its defense exports to slightly improve its battered economy, where one U.S. dollar costs half a million rials, the U.S. Institute for the Study of War indicated. On May 25, Iran’s Statistical Center reported its inflation rate at 46.1 percent.

“This deal disguised as a counternarcotics fight is a joke. Iran has Hezbollah involved in drug trafficking, laundering money from Lebanon to the Mexican, Colombian, and tri-border cartels,” Jorge Serrano, a security expert and advisor to Peru’s Congressional Intelligence Commission, told Diálogo on August 26.

“The boom in drug trafficking, contraband smuggling, and alliances with ‘rogue states’ is damaging Latin America — crime rates for these issues have risen,” the Latin American Affairs Directorate of Jewish organization B’nai B’rith International indicated. “Renewing ties through hidden agreements increases the concern and uneasiness of all without exception.”

State and non-state network

Iran’s advance in Bolivia and the region is based on the military alliance between La Paz and Caracas, to exert influence on the foreign policies of Latin governments, promoting positions contrary to democracy, said Joseph Humire, director of think tank Center for a Secure Free Society in an August 17 commentary.

“Iran is reaching its full its geopolitical potential in the Western Hemisphere, prepositioning military assets and armaments in the region,” Humire said.

“Iran is advancing its ability to infiltrate throughout Latin America based on the ties it has with the Venezuelan regime,” Serrano said. “Venezuela is the main promoter of the infiltration of the Iranian strategy in the region, with the complicity of Cuba’s intelligence services.”

For Humire, Tehran seeks to establish a network of state and non-state presence in Latin America, replicating its approach in the Middle East. Venezuela is leading this initiative.

The La Paz-Tehran alliance already affects the region’s political and security dynamics, says Serrano.


The defense agreement between Bolivia and Iran caused concern to the Argentine government, which contacted the Bolivian ambassador in Buenos Aires to inquire about the memorandum reached by Novillo in Tehran. Meanwhile, the Argentine Jewish community warned that the agreement is tantamount to “having your enemy next door to you,” reported foreign affairs digital publication World Politics Review.

According to Spanish daily La Razón, the Iranian drones in Bolivia could be destined to support Iranian intelligence work, rather than solely focus on the fight against drug trafficking.

Novillo played down Argentina’s concerns and said that Bolivia seeks to obtain Iranian drones solely to safeguard its borders and combat drug trafficking. He dismissed the criticism as “exaggerated,” IRNA reported. The new defense agreement between Bolivia and Iran has not been published.

Special place

“South American countries have a special place in Iran’s foreign and defense policy because they are located in a very sensitive area,” Ashtiani said during his meeting with Novillo, BBC reported.

In June, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, which face U.S. sanctions, to strengthen the “revolutionary ideals of the Islamic populist ideology,” Arab News reported.

“Despite high levels of corruption and lack of leadership, the Venezuelan Armed Forces is the first in Latin America military to have armed drones in its inventory, courtesy of Iran. In 2021, Venezuela began receiving shipments of Iran-made precision-guided short-range missiles that will likely be used to arm the drones,” Humire said. “Delivered under the guise of commercial cargo shipments from Iranian auto manufacturers, the episode reflected Iran’s mastery of dual use transfers and its remarkable ability to blend commercial and military projects.”

“Democracies in Latin America must establish a combined, joint, and complementary high-level strategy to confront common threats, because in isolation they are not going to be able to do it. [Iran] is a transnational threat that affects the region,” Serrano concluded.

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