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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, two leaders known for making inflammatory comments to provoke the United States, joked yesterday about having a nuclear weapon at their disposal.
The atomic bomb comments, while in jest, are particularly striking because they come amid elevated tensions between the US and Iran. Last month, the US approved stricter sanctions on Iran following an IAEA report showing that Iran had pursued work related to nuclear weapons design. More sanctions are expected in January from the European Union. Iran has threatened to shut down a waterway critical to western oil supply.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is visiting four Latin American countries this week to strengthen ties with its allies in the region after tougher US sanctions on Iran were announced on Dec. 31, The Associate Press reports. During his first stop in Venezuela yesterday, Ahmadinejad laughed alongside Mr. Chavez as he said a hill in front of the presidential palace would open to expose a nuclear weapon.
"The imperialist spokesmen say ... Ahmadinejad and I are going into the Miraflores (presidential palace) basement now to set our sights on Washington and launch cannons and missiles.... It's laughable,” Chavez said, according to the BBC.
Last week the Venezuelan Consul General to Miami was given 72 hours to leave the US amid allegations she was linked to a cyberattack plot targeting the US government. Iran and Cuba were also implicated in the Univision documentary that made the initial accusations.
While US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland dismissed the trip as "flailing around… to find new friends," some Iran observers worry the trip shows a level of desperation that could cause the country to make erratic and hazardous decisions, CNN reports.
Karim Sadjapour with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tells CNN "there's a Persian saying that, when you have wild cat trapped in room, leave the door open to let it out."
Sadjapour warns that instability could have devastating consequences. There is "legitimate concern," he says, "that the hardliners in Tehran are purposely trying to provoke some type of a US or Israeli attack on Iran in order to repair Iran's deep internal fissures, both between a disgruntled population against the regime and amongst Iran's political elites themselves."
Sadjapour calls that a "trap" that the United States and Israel "should be very careful about walking into."
Tensions are already high. In December, the US approved new sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, the main conduit for Iranian oil reserves, and the European Union is laying the groundwork for an embargo on Iranian oil, which EU foreign ministers will discuss in late January, The Wall Street Journal reports. In response, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most important oil shipping routes in the world. It transported 20 percent of the world’s oil in 2011, according to Reuters.
In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for regional security cooperation at the Institute for Strategic Studies, says that ballistic missiles may actually be a more pressing threat than nuclear weapons.
Since 2003, I don't know that there has been any evidence, at least in the public domain, of Iran taking measures to make a nuclear weapon. At least I have not seen any indication of that. But Iran certainly is making tremendous headway in developing a range of ballistic missiles that could threaten the cities throughout the Gulf and in Israel. That would include Turkey once this Sajjil- 2 , a two-stage system they are working on now reaches operational capacity.
That system has a range of approximately 2000 kilometers, though we're not really certain exactly what its maximum capacity is. Theoretically, it could threaten targets in the very southeastern corridor of Europe but there is no indication that they're developing that particular system to threaten Europe.”
"We say with clarity that we do not accept those sanctions," Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said. "We are a sovereign nation, we don't have dads punishing us and putting us in the corner for behaving badly. They [the US] should instead be sanctioning the US companies doing massive business in Tehran like Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola."