US foes unite: Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega cozies up to Iran's Ahmadinejad

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will be the guest of honor at the inauguration of Nicaragua's newly-reelected president, Daniel Ortega.

Luis Romero/AP
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, right, applauds next to his wife Rosario Murillo during the summit by Central American governments, called the Consultative Group Meeting for the Reconstruction of Central America, in San Salvador, El Salvador, Dec. 16, 2011.

Nicaragua's president and longtime US foe Daniel Ortega is stirring old tensions with Washington by inviting a special guest of honor to his inauguration Tuesday: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In the 1980s, the US backed the Contra rebels to fight Mr. Ortega's communist Sandinista government – a dark chapter in both countries' history that closed when Ortega was swept from office in democratic elections in 1990.

Since Ortega's return to power by ballot box in 2007, Washington's response has been limited. The US has criticized his antidemocratic power-grab and cut $64 million in Millennium Challenge development aid, but generally tried to work with the Ortega administration while turning a deaf ear to the Sandistas' "Anti-yanqui" diatribes.

Now several Republican congressmen now want to use the Iran issue to turn up the heat on Ortega and reclassify him from State Department bugbear to national security threat – a dubious distinction the Sandinista government hasn’t had since the 1980s.

“This trip by Ahmadinejad to Nicaragua reaffirms why the Obama administration’s lack of action regarding the undemocratic and fraudulent measures taken by the Ortega regime in the last election in Nicaragua are not only misguided, but could pose a threat to our national security as a State Sponsor of Terrorism is given a warm welcome in our backyard,” Florida Congressman David Rivera (R), of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Monitor.

Late last year, former Costa Rican Ambassador Jaime Daremblum testified before a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Iran is using Nicaragua to establish a “strategic presence” close to the United States’ borders, just like the US has military troops stationed in the Middle East in close proximity to Iran.

“Iran wants to the do exactly the same thing with its presence in Nicaragua,” Mr. Daremblum said, starting a buzz that continues to reverberate in Washington.

What Iranian presence?

But back in Nicaragua, it’s hard to see what the hubbub is about.

Since Nicaragua and Iran renewed diplomatic ties in January 2007, the relationship has hardly evolved beyond lofty promises and ideological commiserating. Iran’s unlikely promises to build a $230 million hydroelectric plant and a $350 million deep-water port in Nicaragua are just as implausible today as they were in 2007.

Iran’s diplomatic mission in Nicaragua – three guys sharing a rented house – is “the smallest diplomatic mission in the entire American continent,” according to Iranian Ambassador  Akbar Esmaeil Pour.

And contrary to rumors that Iranians are flooding into Nicaragua without visas to establish a beachhead against the United States, Pour insists the “Iranian colony” here is less than 40 people, many of whom have been here for decades.

The only visible Iranian investment in Nicaragua so far has been a $1.5 million health clinic, which poses more of a threat to flu symptoms than US national security.

Rhetorical support

But what the Nicaraguan-Iranian relationship lacks in substance, it makes up for in rhetoric.

“Our two countries have common interests, enemies and goals,” Ahmadinejad said during his first visit in 2007, after touring a poor slum in Managua. “We may be far apart, but we are close in heart.”

Sandinista official Jacinto Suarez, the party’s secretary of international relations, said Ahmadinejad will be “welcomed” back here on Tuesday, and that Nicaragua sympathizes with Iran’s plight. “Iran is being demonized and persecuted – the country is a prisoner of the new colonial wars,” Suarez told wire service Acan-Efe.

Sandinista officials stress that Nicaragua is a sovereign nation that can confederate with any country it wants, including Iran.

Despite the concerns abroad, Ortega is riding a wave of popular support here.

The former revolutionary was recently reelected with a commanding 62 percent of the vote, and Nicaragua’s economy – feathered with $500 million of annual largess from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez – is growing steadily. The ruling Sandinista Front, a well-oiled political machine whose apparatchiks operate in lockstep obsequiousness, also won a supermajority in the legislature, giving Ortega full control over all four branches of government. Even the president’s public-approval rating is uncommonly high, despite opposition claims that his reelection was illegal.

Ortega the contrarian

But critics claims some of Ortega’s foreign policy moves – such as recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, backing Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi until the bitter end, and publicly expressing its “profound condolences for death of dear leader Kim Jong-il” – appear to driven more by contrarian instinct than national interest.

"In light of how little Daniel Ortega has gotten from Iran since he befriended Ahmadinejad, it's hard to figure out this relationship,” says former opposition lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, the outgoing president of Nicaragua’s congressional foreign affairs committee. “At least Hugo Chavez forks over a half a billion dollars a year to President Ortega, but Ahmadinejad does not appear to offer anything more than moral support. Go figure!”

US diplomats also scratch their heads as to why Ortega would risk relations with the US – Nicaragua’s most important partner for trade and tourism – in exchange for moral support from Ahmadinejad and some of the world’s loonier regimes.

“I think what [Ortega] says is a largely hormonal reaction to events refracted through a cold-war and 1950s’ Marxist-Leninist prism,” says former US Ambassador Robert Callahan, whose old post in Managua has remained vacated since last July. “With the exception of his sycophancy toward Chávez, none of his public statements and the resultant foreign policies, if they can be called that, benefits Nicaragua.”

Even Chávez a 'maybe'

Ortega’s erratic foreign policy and doubts about his counter-constitutional reelection last November explains why only a handful of foreign governments have congratulated him on winning a third term in office. Even fewer will be attending his inauguration on Tuesday. As of the weekend, only the presidents of  Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Iran had confirmed their attendance, along with Spain’s Prince Felipe of Asturias. Ortega's other political allies – Cuba's Raul Castro, Bolivia's Evo Morales, and Ecuador's Rafael Correra – didn't even bother to R.S.V.P.

The deficient diplomatic roll call will mean more spotlight for Ahmadinejad, providing a “I-told-you-so” moment for Republican lawmakers to reaffirm fears of Iran’s growing presence in their “backyard.”

“In Washington’s view, the Iran issue is deadly serious,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “Venezuela is seen as an irritant and problem for the US, but Iran is a different story – it is deemed a major threat, possibly the most urgent question today on the US foreign policy agenda.”

What appears to be Ortega’s finest hour for political and economic power in Nicaragua could quickly turn into a foreign policy disaster for his administration.

Says Shifter: “In light of the Iran connection, the US could adopt an even more hardline stance towards Nicaragua – If only to send a broader message to the region that, when it comes to Iran, the Obama administration is prepared to draw the line and get tough.”

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