If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants his Latin America tour this week to deflect attention away from political repression at home, he should probably reconsider giving Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez a warm embrace when they meet in Caracas Tuesday.
The two controversial leaders have been extolling each other's virtues for years as both have sought to vilify what they call the American-dominated world order – and to extend their influence. But recently, Mr. Chávez has been singing the praises of such globally-recognized despots as Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin – and clubbing Mr. Ahmadinejad with them.
In a speech in Caracas Friday, Chávez compared the three leaders to the convicted Cold-War-era terrorist Carlos the Jackal (Venezuelan Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) whom he called a "revolutionary fighter" and "dear compatriot."
Ahmadinejad set out on his current world tour, first to Africa and now to South America, to demonstrate that Iran's domestic political situation – after the unrest from June's disputed elections – is sufficiently under control to allow him to resume efforts to extend Iran's influence, analysts say.
Another goal is to assert Iran's right to a purportedly-peaceful nuclear program to receptive audiences, even as it faces pressure from global powers to suspend its nuclear program.
But Ahmadinejad has faced questions even from sympathetic quarters on the Iranian regime's crackdown on demonstrations following the Iranian elections. In that context, Ahmadinejad might not want to encourage comparisons with Mr. Amin and Mr. Mugabe.
The Iranian president's visit Monday with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – the first visit to Brazil of an Iranian head of state since 1965 – seemed less problematic. President Lula affirmed Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program but also publicly advised his visitor to negotiate a settlement with the international community.
Lula, in hosting the controversial leader, intended to underscore Brazil's ambitions to become a global player and something of a bridge between the developed and developing worlds. "There's no point in leaving Iran isolated," Lula said in a radio address before receiving Ahmadinejad Monday. "It's important that someone sits down with Iran, talks with Iran and tries to establish some balance so that the Middle East can return to a certain sense of normalcy."
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently spoke out against Iran's growing influence in South America. But State Department diplomats don't appear to be too worried about Ahmadinejad visit to Brazil. They note that President Obama has praised Lula's handling of his country's rise to the international stage.
They also say that other left-leaning leaders in South America – most notably in Argentina – will not engage with the Iranian leader because of the alleged Iranian involvement in terrorist attacks in those countries.
But Venezuela's Chávez is another story. Although his country's economic and political weight is dwarfed by Brazil, his tirades against America – like those of Ahmadinejad – continue to grate.
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