The visit reinforces recent commitments by Iran to invest millions of dollars in economic development projects for the region, from a mining joint venture in Ecuador to factories for petrochemicals and small-arms ammunition in Venezuela.
Iran has also dramatically expanded its diplomatic missions throughout the hemisphere and dispatched members of its elite Quds Force — the military unit U.S. officials in October linked to a foiled assassination plot in Washington — to serve in its embassies, U.S. officials and Iran experts say.
The importance of Ahmadinejad’s visit was underscored last week by Iran’s state-owned Press TV, which said promotion of “all-out cooperation with Latin American countries is among the top priorities of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.”
Iran has dispatched a stream of lower-ranking officials to the region in recent months. Ahmadinejad granted a live interview Dec. 13 with Venezuela’s state-owned broadcaster TeleSUR in which he hailed the close ties between the two countries and boasted of Iran’s advances in military technology, including unmanned drones.
“No one dares attack Iran,” Ahmadinejad said in the interview.
With its latest outreach, Iran appears to be seeking to woo back Latin American countries that have grown wary of doing business with Tehran. Iran’s closest ally in the region, Venezuela, had its largest petroleum company hit with U.S. sanctions last year over its ties with Iran. Smaller countries such as Nicaragua and Bolivia have seen little of the millions of dollars in aid promised by Iranian officials over the past decade.
But with Western nations threatening to boycott Iranian oil, the country’s leaders are scrambling to find willing foreign partners who can soften the blow of sanctions and provide diplomatic cover for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, current and former U.S. officials say.
“Iran has been actively working for years to expand its ties and influence in the Western Hemisphere, and it has found willing partners in the region’s anti-American despots,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Ros-Lehtinen said she was disturbed by Ahmadinejad’s plans for what she called a “tour of tyrants,” saying it would bring “the Iranian threat closer to our shores.”
The visit is expected to include Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua, where the Iranian president will be a guest at the inauguration of newly reelected leader Daniel Ortega.