by Anna Mahjar-Barducci
With Iran is calling for the expansion of ties with Bolivia, the Iranian Minister of Industries and Mines, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, visited the Latin American country and expressed his wish to develop business relations. In a joint press release, Bolivia's President, Evo Morales, went further: he expressed his appreciation for Iranian resistance against the US; criticized the international community over the "double-standard policies" of Western states, and said his country will remain beside Iran and against the "unilateral" policies of the US.
The same concepts were repeated in a recent meeting that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad had with Morales in New York. Pointing to the friendly,brotherly relations between Iran and Bolivia, Ahmadinejad stressed that "today the ties between the two countries have their roots in the bottom of the two nations' and officials' hearts and are expanding intensively." During the meeting, Morales described Iran as a role model for the Latin American states, especially Bolivia, and said the two countries share common views on international issues.
These declarations of intent have not positively impressed Bolivia's Jewish community, worried by their country's increased ties with a regime that has made of Anti-Semitism one of its main platforms. Ricardo Udler, president of the Israelite Circle of Bolivia, expressed his concern for the new cooperation treaties between Bolivia and Iran: "Each time an Iranian official arrives in Bolivia," Udler said, "there are negative comments against the state of Israel; and soon after, the Bolivian authorities issue a communiqué against the Jewish State." Also, said Udler, "What worries me most is the transport of uranium. Although this was never confirmed officially by the state's authorities, there is information from international agencies that indicate that uranium from Bolivia and Venezuela is being shipped to Iran."
State minister Oscar Coca, when asked about uranium, said that the presence of uranium ore in the country had yet to be confirmed, and that certainly no uranium had been shipped to Iran. He insisted that the cooperation with Iranian government covered fields such as oil exploitation, construction of tractors and the likes.
However, an Israeli report of 2009 concludes that Bolivia, alongside Venezuela, is supplying Iran with uranium for its nuclear program. The three-page document about Iranian activities in Latin America was prepared for a visit to South America by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon before a conference of the Organization of American States in Honduras. "There are reports that Venezuela supplies Iran with uranium for its nuclear program," the Israeli Foreign Ministry document states, referring to previous Israeli intelligence conclusions. It added, "Now we have evidence that also Bolivia supplies uranium to Iran." There was no immediate comment from officials in Venezuela or Bolivia on the report's allegations.
Iran is an odd partner for the socialist regimes in South America that doing business with the Ayatollahs. Ideologically, it proposes a theological state, the opposite of what Socialist societies are seeking. Technologically and scientifically, Iran is still, despite some breakthroughs in the nuclear field, a largely underdeveloped country: even though Iran is a major oil producer, it is unable to refine enough gasoline to meet its needs. Geographically, it belongs to a totally different region. So what are the advantages of developing commercial and strategic ties with a partner from so far away, and having so little to offer, when much better capabilities are available in America and in Europe? What have countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba, in common with the Islamic Republic of Iran? Nothing, really, except a deep rooted enmity toward the US.
In this process, Bolivia also fails to develop some of its most important mineral resources --- especially lithium. Half the world's reserves of lithium are buried in the Salar de Uyuni plain. What lies beneath the surface there could turn Bolivia --one of South America's poorest countries -- into the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century. As rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are vastly superior to nickel-based batteries, lithium is the oil of green technology.
The Salar de Uyuni is the latest and greatest discovery in the "Lithium Triangle": 16,000 square miles straddling northern Argentina, Chile, and southern Bolivia, where an estimated 75-90% of the world's lithium deposits are located. So far, Chile's Salar de Atacama has been the largest source and the best exploited—particularly by the Chinese, who imported 4,300 tons of it in 2008. But Bolivia cannot exploit its lithium without foreign investment and expertise, and its main competitors have the jump on it. Chile and Argentina already account for more than half the world's 27,400 metric tons of annual lithium production.
So far, the Morales government's way of working has been to sign accords or memoranda of understanding with everyone who comes along -- yet no sign of development can be seen on the ground. In four years of the Morales government, only a sum of approximately $300,000 has been spent – not even 1% of the new presidential plane that has just been bought.
International investors are also worried by the nationalistic stance taken by the Morales government, in particular the provision that the Bolivian state should maintain at least 60% of the ownership of any enterprise to be created. So while Morales is fiddling around with dismal economic deals with the Ayatollah's regime, a real opportunity is being passed up to change the economy of Bolivia for the good.
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