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Ahmadinejad's Latin America trip kicks sand in US eyes, but is it threatening?

Iran's President Ahmadinejad begins a tour of anti-American capitals in Latin America in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday. The trip seeks to counter perceptions of Iran's isolation over its nuclear program.

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“Sooner or later,” he added, “Venezuela’s people will have to decide what possible advantage there is in having relations with a country that violates fundamental human rights … is isolated from most of the world [and] has consistently supported international terrorism.”

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The administration in May imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned PDVSA oil company for violating US law by selling two tankers' worth of refined petroleum products to Iran.

But Republicans hoping to pin the “soft on Iran” label on Obama in this election year have sounded sharper alarms about Iran’s activities in Latin America.

“Tour of Tyrants” is how House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida last month described Ahmadinejad’s upcoming Latin America trip, adding that it was aimed at “expanding the Iranian threat closer to our shores.” In recent Republican presidential debates, both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney said Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah are increasingly active in the hemisphere, including in Mexico. (Mexico denied those charges.)

Iran and Latin America analysts say Ahmadinejad has accomplished two of his goals with his upcoming trip – riling the “Great Satan” and demonstrating to the Iranian public that Iran is a power with global reach. But many of them add that reports of Iran’s rising influence in America’s backyard are largely overblown.

“Without leaving Tehran,” Ahmadinejad “has already been successful at feeding fears of a minor Persian invasion,” writes Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in a recent posting on the center’s website.

The US and friendly governments in the region, he says, cannot just ignore reports of Iranian-Venezuelan missile development cooperation or of covert Iranian activity in the hemisphere, but neither should Americans buy everything they hear about Iran in Latin America – much of which he says is exaggerated.

Mr. Johnson points out that some analysts have headlined a “tripling” of Iran’s trade with Latin America in recent years. While that may be true, it’s also true that it has tripled from very low numbers, he adds, reinforcing his point that Iran and Latin America’s leftists are more important to each other symbolically than anything else.

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