Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Iran's leader makes inroads in Latin America

CARACAS, Venezuela – Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to expand Tehran's influence in Latin America and deepen his alliance with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez on Wednesday in a visit that offered him a platform to defend his country's nuclear program.

Both leaders roundly denounced U.S. "imperialism," and Chavez also called Israel "a murderous arm of the Yankee empire."

Chavez rebuked Israeli President Shimon Peres for his recent prediction that the people of Venezuela and Iran will soon make their leaders disappear.

"What the president of Israel said, we take it as a threat," Chavez said, standing beside Ahmadinejad outside the presidential palace.

Ahmadinejad's visit triggered small protests and was condemned by Chavez opponents and Venezuela's Jewish community. Students protested outside a Caracas hotel where Ahmadinejad was thought to be staying, and another group outside the Iranian Embassy shouted, "We don't want him, go away!"

Chavez welcomed Ahmadinejad saying both countries are withstanding threats from "the same empire" — the United States. Ahmadinejad praised Chavez saying he is "withstanding the aggressions of imperialism like a mountain," and that the countries are like two soldiers in the same battle trench.

"We feel at home here and among our brothers," Ahmadinejad said through an interpreter. "We're going to be together until the end."

Chavez's enthusiastic embrace of Iran has made Venezuela a gateway for the Iranian government to make diplomatic inroads in Latin America.

Chavez and Ahmadinejad were expected to discuss cooperation in energy, investments, trade and other areas. Venezuela was the final leg of the Iranian leader's three-country goodwill tour of Latin America, after stops in Brazil and Bolivia.

Iran has already helped Venezuela set up factories that assemble cars, tractors and bicycles, and Iranian businesses have sent crews to build public housing under contracts with Venezuela.

Venezuela's opposition accused Chavez of developing a "dangerous alliance" by growing close to Ahmadinejad, citing concerns about the nuclear program and the Iranian president's record on women's rights, crackdowns on dissent and his denials of the Holocaust.

"We reject the presence of someone who would carry out a program of enriching uranium without being subject to international controls," leading opposition parties said in a statement.

The Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations also criticized the government's reception of Ahmadinejad, calling the Iranian president an "ominous character" and expressing concern his tour may help legitimize his government.

Chavez has drawn closer to Iran while increasingly clashing with Israel. His government has accused Peres of trying to disrupt Iran's growing ties with Latin America when the Israeli leader said last week that Chavez and Admadinejad will disappear from the political scene before long.

Peres spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch quoted the Israeli president as saying Chavez and Ahmadinejad do not give their people any hope, and therefore Venezuelans and Iranians will replace them by democratic means. She said Peres did not threaten anyone, but expressed facts as they are.

Chavez broke off diplomatic ties with Israel in January to protest its military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Both Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, meanwhile, have offered support for Iran's nuclear program, saying it is peaceful and not aimed at developing nuclear weapons as the U.S. and European nations fear.

In Bolivia on Tuesday, Morales and Ahmadinejad signed a joint declaration supporting "the right of all nations to the use and development of nuclear energy for peaceful means" — a stance shared by Chavez, who hopes to start a nuclear energy program.

Venezuela said last month that an aerial survey of its mineral deposits backed by Iran uncovered uranium deposits that could eventually be used for atomic energy.

Ahmadinejad's visit to Latin America — especially the first stop in politically moderate Brazil — appeared designed to provide a new measure of international legitimacy as his nation refuses to back down on the nuclear issue.

It is Ahmadinejad's fourth visit to Venezuela, and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro says the countries have signed about 270 cooperation agreements in areas ranging from energy to scientific projects.

Chavez's close ties with Iran have drawn alarm in Washington and Israel as officials warn Iran could use the relationship to support weapons programs or terrorism.

U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said in a February Senate briefing that Venezuela "is serving as a bridge to help Iran build relations with other Latin American countries."

Chavez said Latin American countries are now building ties to Iran due to their growing independence from U.S. influence.

The lefist leader also said he had just returned from an unannounced visit to Cuba, where he met with his mentor Fidel Castro as well as President Raul Castro.

"They asked me to give you a hug for them," Chavez told Ahmadinejad.



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