|Ahmadinejad in Venezuela to forge ties with Latin American nations||
TEHRAN – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad started a four-nation Latin American tour on Sunday aiming to cement ties with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his allies in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America.
Ahmadinejad arrived in Venezuela on Sunday and was received by Vice President Elias Jaua and other Venezuelan officials at Simon Bolivar International Airport near Caracas. He was scheduled to meet with Hugo Chavez and other Venezuelan officials to discuss bilateral relations and the latest international developments.
During his five-day trip, Ahmadinejad will also visit Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador to meet with Latin American leaders.
According to the Associated Press, Ahmadinejad and Chavez both plan to travel to Nicaragua for Tuesday’s inauguration of newly re-elected President Daniel Ortega.
Ahmadinejad has made five visits to the region since 2005.
The U.S. has been unable to resist his anger over Iran’s growing influence in Latin America. The anger boils over whenever Ahmadinejad visits the region.
Cynthia Arnson, Latin America program director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said in a phone interview with Bloomberg that “this (visit) is clearly a political solidarity tour to reinforce relationships.”
Under Ahmadinejad, Iran has expanded its economic, political and military influence in Latin America, taking advantage of an upswell of anti-American sentiment in the region led by Chavez and his eight-nation Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.
Since 2005, Iran has opened six embassies in Latin America and more than doubled trade with Brazil, the region’s biggest economy. The diplomatic offensive has drawn the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in 2009 said that Iran is building a “huge” embassy in Nicaragua. Iranian officials have refuted the claim.
Bolivia moved its only embassy in the Middle East from Cairo to Tehran while Ortega has also announced plans to open its own diplomatic mission there.
Iran’s biggest presence is in Venezuela. Chavez has visited the Islamic Republic nine times, signing more than 100 bilateral deals to support everything from a Venezuelan campaign to build low-income homes to a joint venture to manufacture bicycles, which Chavez jokingly referred to as “atomic” two-wheelers.
Iranian Energy Minister Majid Namjou, who is accompanying Ahmadinejad along with a group of businessmen, said a number of deals will be signed during the current tour, including plans to build the hydroelectric plant in Ecuador. He said Iran is competing for the contract with China, according to comments made to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.
Some leaders in Latin America, who have long resented U.S. military and economic dominance, have stood by Ahmadinejad. Chavez has called him a fellow “gladiator of the anti-imperialist battle” against the U.S., while former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2010 voted against United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran and worked with Turkey to broker a deal to swap the country’s nuclear fuel.
Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, said that U.S. fears are raised every time Ahmadinejad visits the “same four countries” and then subside when he leaves, according to Bloomberg.
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