By Cristina Munoz and Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times
QUITO, Ecuador — In the face of increasing tension between Iran and the West, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans a four-nation tour of Latin America beginning Sunday in an apparent effort to show in part that he is not a universal pariah.
The tour, whose complete itinerary has not been made public, is expected to begin in Venezuela and include visits to Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador.
Tension between Iran and the U.S. and its allies increased after a November report by the U.N. nuclear inspection agency included serious concerns about a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.
President Barack Obama on Saturday signed a defense bill that includes new penalties against financial institutions that do business with the Islamic Republic’s central bank. Iran, meanwhile, has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz oil channel if U.S. and European measures limit its oil exports.
A pledge by the Pentagon to keep the strait open for shipments of non-Iranian oil provoked a warning Wednesday from Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi that the aircraft carrier John Stennis now on exercises in the region should stay away from the strait, through which about one-fifth of the world’s oil is shipped.
Ahmadinejad had been expected to visit Venezuela, with which Iran has signed a number of trade deals, including joint ventures to produce tractors, bicycles and housing, in September. That visit was canceled because of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s cancer treatments.
Iran has sought to strengthen trade ties in the region, particularly with members of the alternative trade block called Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, which was created by Chavez to counter U.S. commercial influence in the region.
From Venezuela, the Iranian leader is to proceed to Nicaragua in time to attend the swearing in of President Daniel Ortega for a second term on Jan. 10. He is to visit Cuba next and finally Ecuador, which expects to sign various energy and construction deals, according to recent comments by trade commissioner Majid Namjoo.
Political analyst Michel Levi, a professor at Simon Bolivar Andean University in Quito, said Wednesday that the Iranian leader’s trip is a demonstration of power in one of the few regions that has put out the welcome mat for him.
“Iran has not had this kind of open door before in a region that has traditionally been linked to U.S. foreign policy,” Levi said. “He is saying, ‘We have here countries that agree with us.’”