Iranian moves to solidify ties with Venezuela, Bolivia and other leftist governments in Latin America have sparked increasing concern in the United States. From Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports the growing Iranian ties reflect shared political and economic goals and anti-American sentiment.
At first glance, Iran seems to have little in common with Latin America. Trade and economic relations are rare, and the two regions have different cultural and religious traditions.
But Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has found common ground with leftist leaders critical of the United States and its policy goals around the world.
To help build alliances, Iran has signed a series of economic deals with Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. This week, Bolivia and Iran agreed on joint projects worth $1 billion, including the installation of three Iranian-backed television channels in Bolivia.
Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the agreements are driven by Iran's political interests, and not economic ones.
"That is why we see all these economic cooperation deals signed, which make no economic sense whatsoever," he said. "But both sides deeply believe in them, and both sides deeply believe in the spread of world revolution."
Clawson says projects like the construction of a new seaport in Nicaragua will have little economic benefit for Iran, but he says Iranian support may help generate political support across the region.
Clawson and Latin America experts spoke at a conference at the University of Miami about Iran's growing influence in Latin America.
University of Miami professor Jaime Suchlicki said Iran and its allies are seeking to nurture other like-minded politicians across Latin America. He says recent Iranian support for candidates in Latin American elections has raised concern about the impact on democracy.
"They are taking advantage of democracy in Latin America," he said. "They support candidates and friends at all levels and try to bring them to power. So the main challenge in Latin America is how to deal with growing Iranian influence within a democratic framework."
Iran's key partner in the region has been Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of the United States. Experts say the Iranian and Venezuelan leaders have used their nations' oil wealth to finance international projects and build new relationships around the world.
Mr. Chavez has backed Iranian plans to begin issuing oil contracts in euros, not U.S. dollars, because of the falling price of the dollar against the euro. Financial experts say the move could weaken the value of the dollar and hurt the U.S. economy.
Jose Azel is a senior research associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
"That is a very sophisticated and dangerous position that Iran and now Venezuela seems to be backing," he said.
Azel says Iran's growing involvement in Latin America is complicating U.S. ties to the region, which have been strained by the war in Iraq and other policy differences. He says Washington recently has been seeking to engage Latin America in an effort to counter the leftist influence.
"The [U.S.] administration has negotiated a number of trade deals with Latin America," he noted. "And [President] Bush has actually visited Latin America more than any other president in U.S. history."
President Bush is currently backing a free trade agreement with Colombia, which administration officials say will help counter leftist influence in the region. The pending trade deal with Washington's close ally may not, however, be enough to ease concerns over Iranian influence in Latin America. Experts say Washington will face a diplomatic struggle as long as Iran continues to offer economic aid and political support to potential allies.