Latin American left rolls out red carpet for Ahmadinejad but no welcome on every mat


WITH WESTERN governments stepping up their diplomatic campaign against his country’s controversial nuclear programme, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is this week seeking to break out from his increasing diplomatic isolation with a week-long trip to left-wing allies in Latin America.

After attending yesterday’s swearing-in of Daniel Ortega to a constitutionally dubious third term as president of Nicaragua, he arrives in Cuba today for talks with President Raúl Castro.

His tour started on Sunday when he touched down in Venezuela for a fifth visit to the country since leftist president Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999 and later this week he will also stop in Ecuador and Guatemala.

Despite the US State Department warning “that now is not the time to be deepening ties, not security ties, not economic ties, with Iran” President Ahmadinejad is assured of a warm welcome along his route.

His first four destinations are all members of the leftist Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a regional bloc created by President Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro as a counter-balance to US influence in the region.

A shared antipathy towards the US has helped cement close ties between ALBA’s leftist members and the theocratic regime in Tehran. Washington is concerned that these ties involve more than just anti-US rhetoric, fearing Venezuela in particular is helping Iran develop an intelligence presence in the region and build financial links that it claims allows Tehran to circumvent financial sanctions. Just days before President Ahmadinejad arrived in Caracas, the US ordered the expulsion of Venezuela’s consul general in Miami, accusing her of involvement in a supposed Iranian plot to launch cyber-attacks on US national security sites.

President Chávez dismissed the US claims as “a load of lies” and labelled Washington’s call to ignore Iran “ridiculous”, instead giving his Iranian guest a warm welcome. He promised the alliance between their two countries would last “forever” and help “to brake the imperial madness” of Washington.

At a joint press conference on Monday the Venezuelan leader laughed off suspicions held in certain sectors of the US security establishment that Iran is helping his country develop a nuclear capability. Pointing to a hill near his presidential palace he said it would “open up and a big atomic bomb will come out” as both leaders laughed.

Though the tour allows President Ahmadinejad show his supporters back home that Iran still has friends abroad despite US efforts to isolate it, his itinerary also highlights how Latin America is no longer as welcoming a destination it once was for the Iranian president.

Unlike 2009 there will be no stop-over in Brazil, the region’s main power with whom Tehran worked assiduously to develop closer ties during the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Lula infuriated Western governments with his freelance attempt in 2010 to broker an independent agreement to end the diplomatic impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme. But relations have cooled since his successor Dilma Rousseff took office a year ago. Brazil’s first woman president, she condemned a sentence of stoning to death against Iranian woman Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani for adultery.

She also ordered a vote in favour of a UN investigation into human rights in Iran, much to Tehran’s annoyance.

Brazil has also turned down the volume on its defence of Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear programme following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s finding in November that Iran’s nuclear programme had a military dimension.

There will also be no visit to Argentina. Despite an alliance with Venezuela, President Cristina Kirchner has kept Iran at arm’s length, with relations soured by evidence that Iran orchestrated lethal terrorist attacks on its soil in the 1990s.

An Argentinian court is currently seeking the extradition of Iran’s defence minister Ahmad Vahidi, who it says was behind the bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in 1994. Eighty-five people died in the worst single atrocity against Jews since the second World War. Argentinian investigators say Vahidi, then leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, planned the bombing which was carried out by Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

Last year Argentina’s foreign ministry filed an official complaint with the government in La Paz when Vahidi visited Bolivia, eliciting an apology from the government of Evo Morales, a member of ALBA which Iran has promised to help build a nuclear power plant.