Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is courting Latin America on a four-nation tour starting Sunday that will let him tout some of Iran's few friendships while tensions grow over the country's threats to block oil shipments in retaliation for tighter U.S. sanctions.
His government finds itself largely isolated in the standoff over its nuclear program, and the new sanctions targeting Iran's Central Bank and oil industry have triggered an abrupt drop in the nation's currency.
Iran's growing economic ties with Latin America could give it some breathing space from the sanctions, and by embracing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his allies, Ahmadinejad also gets a chance to join like-minded leaders in denouncing U.S. foreign policy.
"Iran needs all the friends it can get, and the further away it goes the easier it seems to be for it to be able to find them," said Dan Plesch, director of the University of London's Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy.
Both Iran and Venezuela, he said, "seek to provide mutual support in the face of perceived U.S. aggression."
It will be Ahmadinejad's fifth visit to Venezuela, to be followed by a trip to Nicaragua for Tuesday's inauguration of re-elected President Daniel Ortega, and then stops in Cuba and Ecuador. Ahmadinejad has been to all the countries before, and the visit seems aimed at reinforcing ties with leaders who speak up for Iran.
Tensions have been rising as Iran has warned that it could retaliate against U.S. sanctions by blocking shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. A large share of the world's oil tanker traffic passes through the Strait of Hormuz, which runs along the Iranian coast.
Suzanne Maloney, an expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Ahmadinejad's decision to travel now indicates how important it is to show those at home and abroad that Iran still has allies.
"It is very much a relationship that is about propaganda as much as it is about strategic and economic benefits," Maloney said. "But at the same time, it's clear that Iran has been seeking new markets and seeking new economic relationships."
Beyond Latin America, the country has few reliable allies. Its close partner Syria has been embroiled in violent protests, and other major alliances are mostly built on trade, such as its relationship with China, which needs Iran's oil.
Chavez has visited Iran nine times during his 13-year presidency. Iran has reciprocated by forming joint companies to produce cars and tractors in Venezuela. Iran has also helped in mining exploration and construction of public housing in Venezuela.
Iran's investments in Latin America have remained relatively small, but its growing presence has generated worries in Washington.
Last year, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company for delivering at least two cargoes of oil products to Iran. In 2008, the U.S. imposed sanctions on an Iran-owned bank in Caracas, accusing it of providing support to Iran's weapons program.
The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of trying to develop atomic weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear energy program. France has been pressing the European Union to impose additional sanctions.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday that President Barack Obama's government wants other countries to insist that Iran stop defying international efforts to assess its nuclear program.
"We are making absolutely clear to countries around the world that now is not the time to be deepening ties, not security ties, not economic ties, with Iran," Nuland said.
Ahmadinejad denies the U.S. accusations, saying Washington is trumping up charges because his government refuses to bow to U.S. dictates. "They're very interested in putting more pressure on Iran," Ahmadinejad said in a Dec. 12 interview with Venezeulan state television. "But you can now see that they're growing weaker all the time, and Iran is now much more powerful than before."
The U.S. has accused Iran of sponsoring terrorism. Argentina also has warrants out for the arrests of Iran's defense minister and other officials suspected of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
Some experts and former U.S. officials have long worried about Iran's growing diplomatic missions in Latin America. A 2009 report for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said Iran historically has used its embassies as bases for the Qods Force, the special forces branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and members of the militant group Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. Other analysts call such worries overblown, noting a lack of evidence.
Possible diplomatic fallout for Ahmadinejad's Latin American allies seems limited because Chavez, Ortega and presidents Raul Castro of Cuba and Rafael Correa of Ecuador all share anti-U.S. sentiments.
"The United States has demonized Iran as they did with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Muammar Gadhafi's Libya, because those countries' oil doesn't belong to them," said Jacinto Suarez, international relations secretary of Ortega's party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front.
Some of the nations hosting Ahmadinejad see benefits from trade ties. In September, Cuba's state-run media reported that Iran had granted 500 million euros ($638 million) in loans to buy water supply equipment and agricultural products.
Ecuadorean Defense Minister Javier Ponce has said his country hopes to buy arms from Iran, including radar systems and military vehicles.
However, Iran has pledged more investments than it has delivered in several cases. When Ahmadinejad attended Ortega's last inauguration in 2007, Iran agreed to help build dams and consider investing in the construction of a port in Nicaragua as well as auto and cement projects. Yet, after five years, none of those economic pledges have taken shape.
In Bolivia, Ahmadinejad promised investments and aid totaling $1 billion during a 2009 visit. Some of that has come through, including a dairy factory, a hospital and a $280 million loan.
Brazil, which previously welcomed Ahmadinejad under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has seemingly cooled to having such cordial relations under President Dilma Rousseff.
"A small number of Latin American governments have made common cause with the Iranian government in confronting the U.S.," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson center. "That's not the foreign policy objective of most countries in the region."
Ahmadinejad has not confirmed whether he'll extend his visit to attend the inauguration of Guatemalan President-elect Otto Perez Molina on Saturday. But all governments that have relations with the country are invited as a matter of protocol, and an appearance could be appealing to Ahmadinejad, especially since Guatemala now holds a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.
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