Iran's Ahmadinejad expanding ties in Latin America

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 28, 2009

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Ever isolated by the United States and its European allies, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is increasingly forging ties in Latin America, and not just with fervently anti-American leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

On Monday, Ahmadinejad met with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, a vibrant democracy of 190 million that has the world's eighth-largest economy and warm ties with the United States. The meeting raised concerns in Washington, which has advocated sanctions to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program.

"From Iran's point of view, it's wonderful," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. "They have a willing dupe in Lula, who is apparently willing to extend official courtesy to make the Iranian regime seem like a legitimate regime."

In recent months, Iran has come under stepped-up criticism for what Western leaders say is the secret construction of a uranium-enrichment plant that could be used to make an atomic bomb. On Friday, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog voted to rebuke Iran, with rare support from China and Russia.

But in Latin America, Iran has found close cooperation among an anti-Washington alliance that includes Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Ahmadinejad and the leaders of those countries have signed numerous cooperation agreements, in which Iran has pledged to build milk plants and tractor factories and to provide low-interest loans. Venezuela's government has gone further, announcing that Iran is helping in the search for uranium, which Chávez said would be used for peaceful purposes.

In a recent interview, Venezuela's ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Álvarez, insisted that the relationship is part of Caracas's effort to widen its ties worldwide. He noted that Venezuela and Iran, both members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, have had commercial ties since 1960.

"We have always planted a multipolar world," Alvarez said. "That means building relations with middle-level countries like India, with Brazil, with Iran." He added: "The fact that we have this relationship does not mean that we are in agreement with everything" that Iran does.

In his tour of Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela this week, Ahmadinejad secured support for Tehran's efforts to develop nuclear energy. He also got a platform to rail against American and Israeli policies.

In a joint conference with Lula, Ahmadinejad defiantly said that the United States and Israel "don't have the courage" to attack Iran. When Ahmadinejad arrived in Venezuela two days later, Chávez called Israel a "murderous arm of the Yankee empire."

Chávez's bellicose language, coupled with Venezuela's military alliance with Iran, have drawn concern from the likes of Robert M. Morgenthau, the New York district attorney.

In a speech in Washington in September, Morgenthau said that Iran, in its efforts to procure material for weapons, may be using Venezuelan financial institutions to hide large money transfers. He also raised questions about the Iranian factories in Venezuela, saying they could be used to produce weapons.

In Brazil, though, Lula has publicly said that the West should not isolate Tehran but engage in talks. He also said that Brazil would use its growing influence to work for peace in the Middle East.

Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, noted that Lula told President Obama in a letter Thursday that he had conveyed to Ahmadinejad that it was in Iran's interest to cooperate with the West.

With Iran's rejection of the U.N. watchdog's resolution, though, Sotero said, Lula's invitation to Ahmadinejad could "go down as a gratuitous gesture and a mistaken gesture."

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