Iran's leader makes inroads in Latin America

Irans leader makes inro

Ahmedinejad in Venezuela 248x88 AP (photo credit: )
Ahmedinejad in Venezuela 248x88 AP
(photo credit: )
Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won support for his country's nuclear ambitions and expanded his reach in Latin America in a three-country goodwill tour that took him to close ally Venezuela for his final stop. Venezuela's main opposition political parties condemned the Iranian president's visit before he arrived late Tuesday, saying in a statement that President Hugo Chavez is developing a "dangerous alliance" with Teheran. Chavez's enthusiastic embrace of Iran, which shares his hostility toward the US and Israel, has made Venezuela a gateway for the Iranian government to make diplomatic inroads in Latin America. In Bolivia on Tuesday, Ahmadinejad signed an agreement with leftist President Evo Morales committing Iran to help the Andean country do research on exploiting lithium, the lightweight metal used in electric cars and other batteries. Bolivia possesses half the world's known lithium reserves. In Venezuela, Iran has already helped set up factories that assemble cars, tractors and bicycles, and Iranian businesses have sent crews to build public housing under contracts with Chavez's government. Both Chavez and Morales offer support for Iran's nuclear program, saying it is peaceful and not aimed at developing nuclear weapons as the US and European nations fear. Venezuela's leading opposition parties warned that Chavez is courting danger by growing close to Ahmadinejad, citing concerns about Teheran's nuclear program and the Iranian president's record on women's rights, repression of opponents and his status as a Holocaust denier. "The current government has been building a supposed 'strategic alliance' that provokes well-founded suspicions and fears," the opposition coalition said in a statement. "We reject the presence of someone who would carry out a program of enriching uranium without being subject to international controls." The Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations also criticized the government's reception of Ahmadinejad. In a statement, the group called the Iranian president an "ominous character" and expressed concern that his visits to Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela may grant some legitimacy to a dangerous regime. But in Bolivia, 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 also hopes to start a nuclear energy program. Venezuela said last month that an aerial survey of mineral deposits backed by Iran has uncovered uranium deposits in the South American country that could eventually be used for atomic energy. Ahmadinejad has denied allegations by the United States and its European allies that Iran is trying to build atomic weapons, and has sought to build diplomatic support for his defiant stance. His visit to Latin American nations - especially the first stop in politically moderate Brazil - appeared designed to provide a new measure of international legitimacy for his nation as it engages in large-scale war games and refuses to back down from developing its nuclear program. During talks in Brazil on Monday, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva urged Western nations to drop threats of punishment over the nuclear program and negotiate a fair solution with Iran. Silva also put the onus on Iran, urging it to negotiate with the West to find a "just and balanced" resolution to the standoff over its nuclear fuel enrichment activities. Ahmadinejad also built on ties with Bolivia by overseeing the results of Iranian aid to the poor Andean country, watching the inauguration of a hospital and two milk-processing plants by video conference from the capital of La Paz. Iran donated funding for the seven-story Red Crescent hospital and pasteurizing equipment for the plants. Iran has also given equipment for a state-run TV station, sold Bolivia 700 tractors made in Venezuela and provided financing for a state-run cement plant.