The deal increases Iran and Hezbollah’s security capabilities in the region while limiting Israel’s ability to respond to terrorist threats.
On July 20th, Iran and Bolivia met in Tehran to sign a new security partnership that would see increased intelligence-sharing, military exercises, joint border measures, and cooperation on counternarcotics policy. It will also see Iran selling surveillance and military drones to La Paz.
Bolivian Minister of Defense, Edmundo Novillo, praised Iran as a “model for nations that seek freedom.” The Iranian Minister of Defense replied that “the countries of South America have a special place in Iran’s foreign and defence policy due to being located in a very sensitive area.”
This deal will severely damage Israel’s standing in Bolivia and South America more generally – But this should come as no surprise – in fact, the partnership is right in line with a downward trend in Israel-Bolivia relations that started almost two decades ago.
Between 2006 and 2019, Evo Morales and his government from the Movement for Socialism (MAS) made numerous trips to Iran, cut all diplomatic relations with Israel, sought genocide charges in the International Criminal Court against Israeli officials, and put visa restrictions on Israeli tourists.
Morales engaged in a rapprochement with other adversaries of Israel, including Iran and the dictatorships in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, all of which have used antisemitic rhetoric and worked with Iran to undercut Israeli influence in the region.
The Morales government recognized Palestine’s membership in the United Nations, a policy now continued by the current government of Luis Arce, elected with the MAS in 2020.
The Arce government has condemned Israel repeatedly, with Vice President David Choquehuanca saying that “the crimes committed by the Zionist regime against the Palestinian people should be tried and not forgotten.”
Israel and Iran have engaged in spy games in South America since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, including in Bolivia, where Iran funds various anti-American and anti-Israeli groups. This includes Hezbollah, which, through its Islamic Jihad Organisation, trains pro-Iranian paramilitary groups like the FARC in Colombia and the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. It also funnels drugs and weapons in and out of the region and was responsible for the 1994 bombing of the Israel-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires where 85 perished, most of them Jewish.
Iran began using Hezbollah to carry out operations in South America due to the vast number of Lebanese and Arab immigrants in the region, totalling as many as 18 million.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s state paramilitary organisation, has backed numerous drug-trafficking organisations and paramilitary groups in the region. According to IRGC Brigadier-General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, operatives with Latin American drug cartels, including from Mexico and Venezuela, have travelled to Iran to receive training from the IRGC.
Hezbollah also operates in the Amazon, where it trains fighters and engages in illegal cross-border trade. Part of the Amazon belongs to Bolivia, where Iran will presumably have a freer range of operations given this new security deal.
Such a development is dangerous for Israeli operatives and interests in Bolivia and the region. Tri-border areas, such as the one in the Amazon between Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil, are preferred by Hezbollah due to their ungoverned and remote setting.
There are repeated instances of Hezbollah and the IRGC targeting Israel through the proxy of South American countries, especially in countries on friendly terms with Iran, including Bolivia. For instance, in 2015, the son of Dino Bouterse, President of Suriname, was arrested for letting Hezbollah use Suriname as an operational base.
In 2021, Mossad discovered that Hezbollah planned to assassinate an Israeli national in Colombia, causing increased Israeli intelligence monitoring in the country. Moreover, in 2017, the Bolivian police raided a warehouse belonging to Hezbollah operatives and seized explosive precursor material that could have produced a two-and-a-half-ton bomb.
The deal will also restrict Israel’s ability to curb Iranian-backed terrorism in South America and the Middle East, which puts Israeli security interests in jeopardy. Bolivia will now protect Iranian assets, giving them the liberty to plan and operate in the country. Israeli operatives, on the other hand, will be restricted in their ability to confront and counter Hezbollah operatives in Bolivia. Bolivia, therefore, acts as a haven for Iranian operatives against Israel. Israeli nationals in the country may also be at risk.
More neutral countries in the region, like Colombia, where Iranian operatives have been arrested in the past, or countries on friendlier terms with Israel, such as Brazil — whose right-wing supports curbing Iran’s subversion activities in the country — do not usually interfere with Israeli operations to target local Hezbollah and IRGC operatives. In some instances, they assist in meeting the Iranian threat.
Israeli intelligence may no longer assume Bolivia to be operable territory but should treat it as a rogue state acting against Israeli interests.
Israeli and Western intelligence agencies and local experts have repeatedly raised the alarm about Hezbollah and the IRGC’s operations in Latin America, but regimes like the MAS in Bolivia profit from Iran’s influence. Iran pays the regimes in return for compliance and operational space.
This deal reinforces Iran’s standing in a region increasingly hostile to Israeli and Western intelligence operations. Israel should seek to increase its security and intelligence ties with neutral and friendly nations in the region to counter Iran’s influence and its ability to support terrorism throughout the globe.