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Iran's President Begins Tour of Latin American Nations


Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad begins a Latin American tour Saturday that will include stops in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador. The Iranian leader already has strong ties with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, a vocal critic of the United States. From Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports the trip shows that Mr. Ahmadinejad is seeking more allies in the region.

The trip by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to include meetings with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua's new leader, Daniel Ortega. Both Latin American leaders were sworn in for new terms this week. Monday, the Iranian president travels to Ecuador to take part in the inauguration of that country's new president, Rafael Correa.

Since taking office in 2005, the Iranian leader has been seeking to build ties with several developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He already has a strong relationship with Venezuela's Chavez, who frequently criticizes the United States and who has referred to President Bush as the devil.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's latest trip may help improve those ties, says Gary Sick, an expert on Iran and a former National Security Council staffer under three American presidents.

"Strategically, I don't see this as a huge change. But it is clear that Ahmadinejad is looking for like-minded leaders that he can associate with and use in a way to build up a sort of anti-U.S., pro-populist approach to international politics," he said.

The newly elected leaders in Nicaragua and Ecuador may represent potential allies. Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega has long been at odds with Washington. In the 1980s, Mr. Ortega led a Marxist government that fought a decade-long war against U.S.-backed rebels. In Ecuador, president-elect Rafael Correa has threatened to shut down a U.S. military base in the country, and he has voiced his own criticism of President Bush.

Another area where Iran shares interest with Venezuela and Ecuador is oil. Jorge Pinon, a former oil executive who is now a research associate at the University of Miami, says the talks in Caracas will surely include energy.

"Both Venezuela and Iran always have oil on top of their agenda. So it's no surprise that the presidents of Iran and Venezuela are going to meet, and certainly they are going to be talking about oil," he noted.

Venezuela has turned to Iran for possible help to develop oil sites in the Orinoco jungle region, but Pinon says it's unclear how far any partnership could go.

"Iran has very little to contribute," he added. "They certainly don't have the capital necessary to be a considerable player as a foreign investor in those countries. They need that capital to develop their own infrastructure and their own reserves."

Iran expert Gary Sick questions the timing of Mr. Ahmadinejad's trip to Latin America, saying he may be preoccupied with developments in Iranian politics.

"It is a little bit ironic that Ahmadinejad would be making this trip to build bridges in Latin America at a time when his own support is waning in Iran," he said. "His coalition lost rather badly in the last municipal election, and there are calls for his impeachment in the Majlis, the parliament."

Still, Sick notes that Iran's president has used previous foreign trips to rally anti-U.S. sentiment and generate fresh support for himself at home. He says it is a technique that President Chavez also is effective at using in Venezuela.

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