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Why is Israel's Shimon Peres in Brazil and Argentina? Iran.

For the first time in 40 years, an Israeli president is paying a state visit to Brazil. Israel President Shimon Peres began a week-long visit to Brazil and Argentina today. A key reason: Iran's growing influence in Latin America.

By Taylor BarnesCorrespondent / November 10, 2009

Israel's President Shimon Peres visits Brazil's capital, Brasilia, Tuesday, on a five-day visit to the country.

Eraldo Peres/AP

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Whose backyard is Latin America now?

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That’s the question that a flurry of leaders seem to be trying to answer on a series of visits to the region this month. Israeli President Shimon Peres began his week-long jaunt to Brazil and Argentina today with the stated purpose to “discuss the Iranian infiltration of the continent, opportunities to strengthen political and strategic ties between the countries, and how to increase economic cooperation.”

He’s right on time. The first state visit by an Israeli president to Brazil in 40 years and to Argentina in 20 comes just weeks before an expected trip by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the end of this month. Brazilian officials also say Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may visit them this month.

So how did the world’s fifth largest country, better known for samba and soccer stars than nuclear nonproliferation negotiations (to its long-simmering resentment), become a proxy playing field for Israeli-Iranian tête-à-tête?

First, Brazil and Argentina have Latin America’s largest Jewish populations. Second, “Brazil has maintained relations with Iran, even visiting Iran, and that’s been a source of concern not only for Israel but for the United States,” says Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy for the New York-based Council of the Americas. “[Mr. Peres] is trying to reach out to a swing state, if you will.”

Brazil prides itself on an independent foreign policy, leaning neither too close to the US nor to the region’s extreme leftists. For example, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defended Iran’s development of a nuclear program for energy purposes in September’s UN gathering in New York. “Brazil has always thought of itself as being a mediator,” Mr. Sabatini adds, “[and] that it’s better to, say, embrace than to isolate.”

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