By Jim Wyss, McClatchy Newspapers –
BOGOTA, Colombia — As tension escalates in the Persian Gulf and a diplomatic squabble grows in the Americas, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a red-carpet welcome in Venezuela Monday as he began a four-nation Latin American tour that is raising concerns in Washington.
Ahmadinejad’s visit, during which he will also travel to Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador, began the day after the U.S. State Department confirmed that Venezuela’s consul in Miami was asked to leave the country after reports that she took part in a 2008 discussion about a potential cyber-attack on the United States.
Also on Monday, Iran was accused of stepping up its efforts to enrich uranium, and Iran’s courts announced that a former U.S. Marine was sentenced to death on espionage charges.
Calling Ahmadinejad his “real brother,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said his nation and Iran had to stand together against the United States and its allies.
“We didn’t ask for this task, but it’s our duty to stop the crazed imperialism that is stronger than ever before,” Chavez said. “It’s a danger to the world — these pretensions of the Yankee empire to control the globe.”
The escalating rhetoric came as the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had begun enriching uranium at a new fortified bunker. Iran claims that its nuclear program is peaceful, but the international community is increasingly concerned about its military ambitions and has been increasing economic sanctions.
Ahmadinejad said his nation was prepared for “martyrdom,” but that it had no bellicose intentions.
“We love everyone,” he said, on the steps of the presidential palace, “including the people of the United States who are suffering under the domination of the arrogant.”
Chavez said the U.S. and its “lackeys” were trying to paint Iran and Venezuela as the aggressors.
“Who has dropped thousands and thousands of bombs on innocent civilians — including some atomic bombs? Who has promoted coups, massacres and genocide?” Chavez said. “Not us. We are among the countries that have been victims.”
The two leaders were scheduled to discuss ongoing bilateral projects, and the state-run Agencia Venezolana de Noticias said they would sign agreements covering tourism, science and technology, energy, and the automotive industry. On Tuesday, they are scheduled to be in Nicaragua for the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega — a staunch Chavez ally.
Meanwhile, a diplomatic spat between Venezuela and the United States continued over the expulsion of Livia Acosta, the Venezuelan consul general in Miami.
Last month, the Spanish-language Univision television network reported that Acosta and an Iranian diplomat in Mexico had been approached in 2008 by university students who offered to hack U.S. government websites on their behalf.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she could not provide details about the decision. “But I will tell you that we do not take it lightly when we declare somebody persona non grata.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led the push for Acosta’s expulsion.
“It would not surprise me if other Venezuelan consulates in the U.S. are staffed with spies,” she said Monday. “The threat represented by the former Venezuelan consul general in Miami is real, so we must remain vigilant against similar acts.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said the government would respond “forcefully” to Acosta’s expulsion, but no action has been taken yet.
Also on Monday, Iran’s FARS News Agency said the government had condemned to death Amir Mirzayee Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine from Arizona, for spying and trying to “accuse Iran of supporting terrorism.”