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Iran’s Ahmadinejad to begin Latin American tour

By Jim Wyss, McClatchy Newspapers –

MIAMI — Under pressure at home and facing a fresh wave of economic sanctions, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seeking the company of friends — in Latin America.

Starting Sunday, Ahmadinejad will be on a four-nation tour that includes U.S. antagonists such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador.

The trip comes as the United States and the European Union are turning the screws on Iran in hopes of forcing it to halt its nuclear program. Iran insists its aims are peaceful, but many fear the regime has military ambitions. The sanctions come as Ahmadinejad’s party is facing parliamentary elections — the first vote since the 2009 presidential race that led to bloody protests.

“As responsible nations toughen sanctions on Iran and the regime becomes increasingly isolated, it makes sense that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would seek a helping hand from fellow dictators and human rights abusers,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who has dubbed the visit the “Tour of Tyrants.”

Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has called for secret briefings later this month to evaluate the administration’s response to Iran’s growing influence in the region.

Iraj Milani, the deputy in charge of the Iranian Embassy in Colombia, said the trip is designed to boost bilateral trade and find new opportunities for Iranian construction companies that have an expertise in tunnel and dam building. It comes as Iran’s incipient trade in the region is surging, and the country is rolling out new embassies.

“Our government is simply trying to diversify its trading partners and promote more ‘South-South’ collaboration,” he said. And Ahmadinejad is eager to promote regional unity among “nationalistic” leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.

“But the United States is worried about this ongoing integration because it’s not in their strategic interests,” he said. “And it’s taking place in a region that they have always considered their backyard.”

The itinerary seems as much about provocation as business, said Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the author of an upcoming report about Iran’s Influence in the region.

“In Latin America, (Iran) is obviously trying to be a thorn in the side of the United States,” he said. While Iran is investing heavily in Latin America, it’s unclear what the economic benefits are, he said. And Iran’s own media have questioned some of the deals.

“It seems the real target is the broader international audience,” Johnson said, “and to make it look like Iran is having an influence in the United States’ own neighborhood, as much as the U.S. is an influence in the Middle East.”

Some see hypocrisy in the U.S. rhetoric. Correa told The Miami Herald in a recent interview that he faced a barrage of criticism when Iran opened an embassy in Ecuador, but U.S. ally Colombia has “always had an Iranian embassy and the United States has never said anything.”

Likewise, Iran’s biggest trade partners — the European Union buys 90 percent of Iran’s exports — aren’t chastised, “but when we want to talk to Iran they call us terrorists, accuse us of money laundering and say that we’re now part of the Axis of Evil,” he said.

Iran has been at the center of recent media firestorms. In October, the U.S. accused authorities of directing an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., with the help of Mexican drug cartels. Last month, Spanish-language network Univision said Iran, Venezuela and Cuba were plotting a cyber attack on the United States out of Mexico. In May, the German paper Die Welt reported that Iranian engineers were building a mid-range missile base in Venezuela’s Paraguana Peninsula. Venezuela has denied those claims.

In addition, a series of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks suggested Iranian geologists were prospecting for uranium in Venezuela and Bolivia. Subsequent cables cast doubts on those efforts and analysts have pointed out that Iran has access to more reliable sources of uranium closer to home.

Milani called those stories part of a U.S. propaganda war to spread “Iran-phobia” in the region. The United States is still bitter that the Islamic Revolution toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a staunch U.S. ally, 30 years ago, he said.

“They are trying to demonize and isolate us,” Milani said. “They are trying to break the will of our people so that they can have the same privileges they had before 1979.”

Johnson said that many of the most alarming reports are unsubstantiated, but there are reasons for concern. In the past, Iran has been accused of trying to import material for its nuclear enrichment program under the guise of industrial equipment. The cement and dairy factories that Iran is building in Latin America could conceivably be used as covers for such technology transfer programs, he said.

“These projects are not transparent and not available for scrutiny,” he said. “They invite speculation as to what they actually do.”

Iran’s role in the region has sometimes been controversial. The nation was accused of backing the alleged 1994 Hezbollah bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Among those facing charges in Argentina is Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s minister of defense. Vahidi, who has been on Interpol’s Red List since 2007, visited Bolivia last year, but Bolivian officials expelled him rather than detain him.

“In the memory of the AMIA victims, Latin America needs to be more committed to demanding answers from Iran,” said Juan Dircie, the associate director of the American Jewish Committee’s Latino and Latin American Institute-Miami. “It’s not right for countries to receive them with open arms and forget about this issue with every visit.”

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