Latin America welcomes Ahmadinejad

After being derided in New York City, the Iranian leader looks to the south for friends.

After a visit to New York and the United Nations General Assembly at which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came in for tough questions about his country's violations of basic human rights and its nuclear program, he's embarked on a tour of Latin America where it looks assured he'll receive a much warmer reception. Analysts say that the Iranian leader hopes to build ties in the south in order to help the nation's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Associated Press reports he’s looking to extend trade and oil deals with some of the left-leaning governments south of the US as a counterweight to American involvement in the Middle East.

He and (Bolivian) President Evo Morales were expected to sign accords that Bolivian officials say could help them better tap the continent's second-largest natural gas reserves after Venezuela's and drum up urgently needed agricultural investment.
Ahmadinejad then heads to Caracas to meet Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who has defended Iran's claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes.
Ahmadinejad's trip south underscores his strengthening links to Latin American nations that also include Nicaragua and Ecuador even as the United States tries to isolate him internationally.
"It's a connection that is growing stronger all the time," said Alberto Garrido, a Venezuelan writer and political analyst. "It's Iran's answer to the United States on its own home turf. The United States is in the Middle East, so Iran is in Latin America."

That Iran is looking to strengthen ties among countries that are distrustful of the United States' regional and global intentions is no surprise, given the increasing pressure Ahmadinejad's coming under from the US. The Washington Post reports that he failed to improve his country's standing and image during his visit to New York.

After several days of controversy, heckling and vitriolic headlines in the local tabloid newspapers, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to New York was capped Wednesday by a 76 to 22 U.S. Senate vote calling on the Bush administration to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
The congressional rebuke a few hours before Ahmadinejad's Iran Air 747 departed reflected what American scholars and Iranians alike depicted as a missed opportunity by the Iranian president to ease mounting tensions between Iran and the West, particularly the United States.
He had an opportunity to present himself to the American people in a way that would make conflict less likely. And I don't think he succeeded," said John H. Coatsworth, the Columbia University dean who moderated a speech in which Ahmadinejad insisted on Iran's right to pursue uranium enrichment for a nuclear energy program, denied the existence of Iranian gays, and defended additional research on whether the Holocaust occurred.

Front Page Magazine, a right-leaning American publication, says that Iran is spending freely in the hopes of buying allies and swaying the two-thirds of UN member states needed to win a seat on the Security Council.

The election for the seat that Iran is seeking - which is reserved for a member of the Asia Group of member states to which Iran belongs - will be held during the 63rd Session of the UN General Assembly in 2008, but Iran is not wasting any time..
Senior Iranian officials have reportedly been working through back channels to promote Iran's candidacy. Although Japan has also put forward itself for the Security Council seat, Iran is far ahead. Most importantly so far, the powerful fifty-seven member Organization of Islamic Conference – which has super-sized sway over the General Assembly - has already nominated Iran for the seat. Moreover, China can be expected to put its weight behind Iran rather than its long-time nemesis, Japan.
Making sure that it will not meet the same fate as Venezuela's failed bid last year for a Security Council seat, Iran has been spreading its petrodollars around in Latin America, Africa and Asia to win the support of member states in those regions. Iran's largesse has included lucrative investments, trade and arms deals… In Latin America, for example, Iran has forged economic ties with Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua and Brazil. In Africa, Iran has agreed to build an oil refinery and petrochemicals plant in Senegal, and has entered into a long-term contract to supply South African refineries.

An article earlier this month in Time Magazine lays out in detail Iran's plans for much stronger ties with Nicaragua, whose current leader, Daniel Ortega, was attacked by the US when it funded an insurgency against the last government he ran in the 1980s, partly through illegal arms sales to Iran.

The Nicaragua-Iran embrace includes four significant events since Ortega took office as the democratically elected leader of his country last January. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, to personally congratulate Ortega days after his Jan. 10 inauguration. Then Ortega borrowed a jet from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to visit Iran in June. Two months later, Iran and Venezuela pledged $350 million to build a seaport near Monkey Point on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast. (Tehran has also been cultivating an alliance with oil-rich Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.) And last Wednesday, the Nicaraguan foreign minister returned from Tehran, where he met with the foreign ministers of Syria, Cuba and Iran. There is now speculation that Nicaragua may support Tehran's bid for a seat in the U.N. Security council.

Closer to home, however, Iran's tense relationship with fellow regional oil power Saudi Arabia, as staunchly Sunni as his regime is Shiite, appeared to heat up, reports Agence France-Presse.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Saudi King Abdullah that the "enemies of Islam" were trying to divide the Muslim community, his website said on Saturday.
The Ahmadinejad-Abdullah telephone call came amid complaints from Iran, which is majority Shiite, that Iranian pilgrims visiting Islam's holiest sites in the mainly Sunni kingdom were being harassed.

Saudi Arabia is deeply worried about Iran's nuclear program, since it fears it would give its opponent added clout in the race for influence in the region, reports RTT News.

"Following his talks with US and other officials, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal on Wednesday expressed his deep concern over what he believed was a "confrontation in the making" between Iran and the West, saying it was the last thing the troubled region needs.
The Saudi Prince's remarks were made in the context of the verbal duels between the United States and other Western nations and Tehran over the latter's refusal to halt its controversial nuclear program.
Arab countries have already expressed concern over Iran's growing clout in the Shiite-led Iraqi government that will embolden their own Shiite communities, causing even more instability in a region."
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