Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Latin America trip, a whirlwind four-nation tour that began in Venezuela on Jan. 8, is now taking him to the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. The trip is his fifth visit to the region since 2007 and has prompted alarm in some corners of the United States that Iran is using the region as a staging ground to attack US interests.
However, many who study Iran’s relationship with Latin America, in particular Venezuela, say fear of an Iranian threat in the Americas is overblown, at least at this point. Here are four reasons why:
Despite a flurry of deals signed in recent years, some say Iran's economic and political influence in Latin America is shrinking. Only a handful of countries in the region – mostly impoverished, with the exception of Venezuela – extend an open hand to Ahmadinejad and Venezuela is the clear ringleader.
Without him in office – a possibility given Venezuela’s presidential election in October, as well as his cancer diagnosis – the other countries very well may forgo the friendship, says Meir Javedanfar, an expert on contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center – Herzliya in Israel.
After Nicaragua, Ahmadinejad will head to Cuba and Ecuador. The countries not on his agenda, however, are more telling: he will not be visiting the region's powerhouse economies, most notably Brazil. That is significant because former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva reached out to Ahmadinejad, inviting him to visit in 2009. But Current President Dilma Rousseff does not seem to have warmed to Ahmadinejad. “When (Iran) lost Lula, it was a big setback for them,” says Mr. Javedanfar.
Overall, Iran is highly unpopular in Latin America. On a list of nine countries in the 2011 Latinobarometro poll, Iran comes in as least popular (Israel is almost equally as unpopular).