(CNSNews.com) – As the United States military prepares to vacate an airbase in Ecuador in the fall, the leftist government responsible for its upcoming departure is looking to Iran as a future military partner.
Iranian television quoted Ecuadorian Defense Minister Javier Ponce as saying his country wants to collaborate with countries such as Iran that are willing to help Ecuador develop its defense industry.
“We have our own policies, our own geostrategic positions, and what interests us, with Iran for instance, is boosting information technology and our national defense strategies,” he said.
Ponce also noted that the U.S. will leave an airbase at Manta, a coastal city about 200 miles east of Quito, the capital. A 10-year lease for the site expires in November, and President Rafael Correa, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has refused to renew it. The U.S. military uses the base to support regional counternarcotic operations.
Ponce, a leftwing poet and journalist, served as Correa’s personal secretary before the president appointed him to the top defense post last year. He has long been a critic of U.S. policy in Latin America.
Ponce accompanied Correa on a visit to Tehran last December and held talks with his Iranian counterpart, Brig.-Gen. Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, who said Iran was ready to deepen defense cooperation with Ecuador.
Senior U.S. administration officials in recent months have voiced concern about Iranian activities in Latin America.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is scheduled to visit El Salvador and Honduras next week, told State Department employees at the beginning of May that the growing influence in the region of Iran and China was “quite disturbing.”
Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was worried about “the level of, frankly, subversive activity the Iranians are carrying on in a number of places in Latin America.”
“They’re opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts behind which they interfere with what is going on in some of these countries,” he said, adding that Iranian “meddling” was of greater concern for him than Russian Navy drills in Venezuelan waters late last year.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, currently campaigning for re-election, has drawn criticism from one of his opponents for focusing on Latin America rather than Iran’s immediate vicinity.
“Instead of investing in Iran’s neighboring countries, the government has fixed eyes and poured money into Latin American states,” former prime minister Mir-Hossein Moussavi said in a televised address last week. “The president has obviously failed to get his priorities right,” added Moussavi, one of four candidates in the June 12 election.
Ahmadinejad won support from the chairman of the parliamentary security and foreign affairs commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who said the Latin American policy had enabled Iran to build “a secure footing in Washington’s strategic backyard.”
Ahmadinejad himself confronted Moussavi’s charge on Wednesday, saying in a radio broadcast that his rival did not understand world affairs.
“When the Western countries were trying to isolate Iran, we went to the U.S. backyard and I even delivered my strongest anti-U.S. speech in Nicaragua,” he said, describing Iran’s activity in Latin America as “a very wise move.”
“A number of leftist states in the region, namely Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, have all become allies of Iran in recent years and support Tehran’s opposition to the unipolar international order built around U.S. interests,” Iran’s state-funded Press TV said this week.
Regional, local impact
The U.S. began using Manta as a forward operating location (FOL) in 1999, after the then president, Jamil Muhuad, signed an agreement allowing the U.S. to use part of an existing air force base for counternarcotics operations.
Between 2000 and 2004, the U.S. spent $71 million on upgrading the airstrip and construction work.
In 2008, operations at the base accounted for the seizure of 229 metric tons of cocaine with an estimated street value of $4.5 billion, according to U.S. Southern Command.
Information provided by U.S. Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection aircraft is used to guide U.S. and partner governments in the region to carry out seizures, the command says.
The U.S. Embassy in Quito says the base employs 150 Ecuadorians and injects $6.5 million annually into the local economy, including operating and maintenance costs.
According to Lt. Col. Jared Curtis, commander of the 478th Expeditionary Squadron which provides the personnel and facilities at Manta, volunteers stationed there donated more than 9,000 hours to deliver clothing, school supplies, toiletries, food and vitamins to the surrounding areas last year.
Now, authorities at the base are preparing to transfer the facilities to the Ecuadorians. Twenty-two buildings including hangars, dormitories and a cafeteria will be transferred to the Ecuadorian air force base and other items will be donated to local schools, orphanages and community centers.
Counternarcotics surveillance flights will stop in July.
In its 2010 budgetary request, the Pentagon included $46 million for a “cooperative security location” (CSL) at the Palanquero air base in Colombia, reviving long running speculation that the U.S. may be looking for a Colombian facility to replace Manta.
“The department’s objective is to develop an array of access arrangements for contingency operations, logistics, and training in Central/South America, and it is currently discussing possible arrangements for increased access in several countries in the region,” the budget request summary said.
The military describes a CSL as a facility with little or no permanent U.S. personnel presence, intended for contingency access, logistical support, and rotational use by operational forces.