Iranian minister's trip to Cuba, Latin America raises concern about its influence in region

Trailed by an enormous delegation of economic advisors, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Havana earlier this week to start a six-day swing through Latin America.

The trip to Cuba, in which Zarif met with various dignitaries including Cuban President Raúl Castro, was billed by the foreign minister as one that would unite two countries with histories of resisting what he referred to as "atrocities" by the United States.

“It’s a very opportune moment to extend our relations,” Zarif said at a press conference. “We have always been on the side of the great Cuban people in the face of the atrocities and unjust sanctions they have faced, and vice-versa.”

Foreign policy analysts say that Zarif’s trip and his choice of words in Havana should not be taken lightly by Washington, especially as the Obama administration has worked hard in the last few years to improve the tense relations with both Havana and Tehran.

“The U.S. should be very aware of this type of mission to Cuba and what Iran’s plans are,” Leah Soibel, executive director of Fuente Latina, told Fox News Latino.

The U.S. – along with the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany – brokered a controversial deal last year with Iran that would limit the Islamic republic’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.

In a historic moment that ended decades of Cold War animosity, Cuba and the U.S. re-established diplomatic ties last year and have slowly worked to normalize issues like travel, money exchange and information sharing. The historic rapprochement, however, has still not brought an end to the U.S. embargo imposed on the communist island since 1962.

Cuba and Iran have had close relations ever since the Middle Eastern country’s 1979 Islamic revolution, which overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the nation’s supreme leader. Following the revolution, the U.S. established economic sanctions against the country.

Since then, decades of mutual ideological enmity toward the U.S. have forged a strong bond between the two nations.

“Both Cuba and Iran have reached a road map after years of sanctions which they should use to explore new economic opportunities and take advantage of each other’s capabilities,” said Cuban Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment Malmierca Díaz, according to Iranian media.

Zarif’s stop in Havana – before heading to Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela – is also seen as a symbolic move on the part of Iran to reach out to the sociopolitical leader of Latin America’s left-leaning nations. Since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, socialist leaders like the Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega have looked to Cuba as ideological guidepost.

“Cuba is a very important player in regards to Iran’s relations with Latin America,” Soibel said. “If Cuba gives the greenlight, the rest of the nations will follow suit.”

Of the other countries on Zarif's itinerary, Ecuador and Bolivia also have leaders in presidents Rafael Correa and Evo Morales who have enjoyed warm relations with the Castro regime.

Despite the fanfare of the visit, some experts argue that Iran doesn’t have much to offer Cuba, and that leaders in Tehran are worried that the island's thaw in relations with the U.S. threatens to undermine what influence the Iranians have in the communist nation.

“They’re jockeying for Cuba’s favor,” Chris Sabatini, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, told FNL. “Iran can’t bail Cuba out of its economic crisis, and Cuba knows that.”

Sabatini added that while it is important for the U.S. to monitor the visit, it shouldn't be as big a cause for concern as it would have been before the thaw.

“The U.S. is becoming more and more of an influence – not just now in Cuba, but it will continue into the future,” he said.