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.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in America’s backyard Sunday for a five-country trip designed to counter perceptions of Iran’s growing international isolation over its nuclear program.

The burr under America’s saddle will begin his Western Hemisphere visit in Caracas, Venezuela, where the open arms of the leftist-populist President Hugo Chávez will set the tone for a trip that will take in other Latin anti-American capitals, including Managua, Nicaragua, Quito, Ecuador, and Havana, Cuba.

Also on the trip itinerary is Guatemala, where the Iranian leader will attend the inauguration of President-elect Otto Perez.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip, his second to Latin America since 2009, comes amid rising tensions between Iran and Western powers intent on curtailing a nuclear program that much of the international community says shows every sign of aiming for nuclear weapons development. Iran claims the program is for strictly civilian purposes.

The Iranian leader, known for his provocative rants at the United Nations’ annual opening session in New York, appears to be relishing a trip that is being interpreted as an affront to the United States – especially as it comes just as Iran is making a show of warning the US to stay out of its own backyard in the Persian Gulf.

In a high-stakes tit-for-tat that some international analysts blamed for a spike in oil prices last week, the US pointedly responded that it will maintain its presence in the Gulf and in particular will continue to ply the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow sea lane through which passes about one-fifth of the world’s oil.

The Ahmadinejad visit also places a spotlight on how Iran’s aspirations in Latin America have come to figure in American trade policy and politics.

In the run-up to Ahmadinejad’s trip, Iranian officials touted the rising importance of Latin America to Iran. “The promotion of all-out cooperation with Latin American countries is among the top priorities of the Islamic republic’s foreign policy,” said the official IRIB News Agency last week.

Such talk irks the Obama administration, which has its eyes set on Latin America as President Obama pursues his 2010 goal of doubling US exports by 2015. The administration ushered free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama through Congress last year, and Mr. Obama would like to announce their implementation by the time he attends a Summit of the Americas in Colombia in April.

The administration was largely quiet about Ahmadinejad’s last trip to Latin America (a trip that included powerhouse Brazil) in 2009, but that’s not so true this time around, reflecting the rising tensions between the two countries.

In a recent interview with El Universal newspaper in Caracas, Obama said the Venezuelan government’s “ties with Iran and Cuba have not benefited the interests of Venezuela and its people.”

“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.”

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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