Iran's leader makes inroads in Latin America

AP News
Posted: Nov 25, 2009 11:34 PM

Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to expand Tehran's influence in Latin America and deepen his alliance with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez on Wednesday in a visit that gave him a platform to defend his country's nuclear program.

Both leaders roundly denounced U.S. "imperialism," and Chavez also called Israel "a murderous arm of the Yankee empire."

Chavez rebuked Israeli President Shimon Peres for his recent prediction that the people of Venezuela and Iran will soon make their leaders disappear.

"What the president of Israel said, we take it as a threat," Chavez said, standing beside Ahmadinejad outside the presidential palace.

Ahmadinejad's visit triggered small protests and was condemned by Chavez opponents and Venezuela's Jewish community. Students protested outside a Caracas hotel where Ahmadinejad was thought to be staying, and another group outside the Iranian Embassy shouted, "We don't want him, go away!"

Chavez welcomed Ahmadinejad saying both countries are withstanding threats from "the same empire" _ the United States. Ahmadinejad praised Chavez saying he is "withstanding the aggressions of imperialism like a mountain," and that the countries are like two soldiers in the same battle trench.

Chavez's enthusiastic embrace of Iran has made Venezuela a gateway for the Iranian government to make diplomatic inroads in Latin America. Venezuela was the final leg of the Iranian leader's three-country goodwill tour of Latin America, after stops in Brazil and Bolivia.

Iran has already helped Venezuela set up factories that assemble cars, tractors and bicycles, and Iranian businesses have built public housing complexes under contracts with Venezuela.

The two leaders watched by video conference as one Iranian-built housing complex was inaugurated. They also watched as an office was opened for Venezuela-Iran development fund, started up with an initial $200 million put up in equal shares by the two countries. The governments aim to eventually put $1 billion into the fund to pay for development projects, both in Venezuela and in allied countries.

The governments signed a dozen accords, including agreements for Iran to help in electrical projects, vaccine production for livestock, rice farming and the construction of more public housing.

Venezuela's leading opposition parties accused Chavez of developing a "dangerous alliance" by growing close to Ahmadinejad, citing concerns about the nuclear program and the Iranian president's record on women's rights, crackdowns on dissent and his denials of the Holocaust.

The Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations also criticized the warm reception of Ahmadinejad, calling the Iranian president an "ominous character" and expressing concern his tour may help legitimize his government.

Chavez has drawn closer to Iran while increasingly clashing with Israel. His government has accused Peres of trying to disrupt Iran's growing ties to Latin America when the Israeli leader said last week that Chavez and Admadinejad will disappear from the political scene before long.

Peres spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch quoted the Israeli president as saying Chavez and Ahmadinejad do not give their people any hope, and therefore Venezuelans and Iranians will replace them by democratic means. She said Peres did not threaten anyone, but expressed facts as they are.

Chavez broke off diplomatic ties with Israel in January to protest its military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Both Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, meanwhile, offered support for Iran's nuclear program, saying it is peaceful and not aimed at developing nuclear weapons as the U.S. and European nations fear.

Ahmadinejad mocked the concerns, saying through an interpreter, "I want to show one of those atomic bombs" _ and pulled out a silver box containing a sophisticated microscope produced by Iran.

Chavez told reporters: "I'm sure that Iran is not developing any atomic bomb. They're just developing nuclear energy as Brazil is, as Argentina is."

The leftist leader also hopes to eventually start a nuclear energy program in Venezuela, and last month his government said an aerial survey of its mineral deposits backed by Iran uncovered uranium deposits.

Ahmadinejad's visit to Latin America _ especially the first stop in politically moderate Brazil _ appeared designed to provide a new measure of international legitimacy as his nation refuses to back down on the nuclear issue.

It was Ahmadinejad's fourth visit to Venezuela.

Chavez's close ties with Iran have drawn alarm in Washington and Israel as officials warn Iran could use the relationship to support weapons programs or terrorism.

Chavez dismisses those concerns as attempts to demonize him and Ahmadinejad.

The Venezuelan leader said he had just returned from an unannounced visit to Cuba on Tuesday, where he said he talked for seven hours with his mentor Fidel Castro and also met with President Raul Castro.

"They asked me to give you a hug for them," Chavez told Ahmadinejad.


Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez, in Caracas, contributed to this report.