'Iran cultivating L. American ties beyond Venezuela'

Tehran wants ties with other Latin nations should Chavez lose his battle with cancer, US official says; comments come after Ahmadinejad's recent tour of Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba.

Ahmadinejad and Chavez 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ahmadinejad and Chavez 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Iran is cultivating relationships beyond Venezuela to make sure its toehold in Latin America stays secure, should Hugo Chavez lose his battle with cancer, a former US State Department official warned Wednesday.
“Certainly the Iranians are happy with the platform they have so close to US borders. They’d love to hang on to Venezuela, but if that isn’t convenient for whatever government that succeeds Chavez, they’ll have look elsewhere,” said Roger Noriega on a conference call sponsored by The Israel Project.
Noriega pointed to the countries Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited in addition to Venezuela on his recent Latin American tour – Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba – as places Iran is looking to develop ties.
Noriega, who served in the George W. Bush administration, will testify before the Senate on Iran and Latin America Thursday. He is expected to highlight Ecuador as a country of particular interest for Iran.
He has noted that Ecuador possesses both uranium deposits and an economy that uses US dollars as its local currency, which gives Iran access to American cash, which he has otherwise largely been cut off from.
“The Iranians have established good working relationships with Ecuador [and] cooperation between the central banks on how to interact in accessing international financial institutions, and that’s very dangerous because Ecuador is a dollarized economy,” he cautioned.
Noriega also described Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa as “just erratic enough to try to have some sort of provocative relationship with Iran.”
Noriega, who now works at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, but maintains a network of contacts in the region, said the information he’s seen concerning Chavez’s health suggests he might not even make it until the presidential elections slated for October 7.
Through the relationship that Ahmadinejad has built with Chavez, Noriega charged, Iran has made headway in its efforts to launch an asymmetrical struggle against US, European and Israeli targets; developing economic structures there to avoid sanctions; mining for uranium to use in Tehran’s nuclear program; and helping Hezbollah use the territory to conduct training and recruitment.
Chavez’s successor, however, might be more interested in consolidating his power than provoking the United States by continuing this policy, Noriega reasoned.
“You might even see one of these folks try to hold onto power by throwing Iran out and trying to reassure the United States and its neighbors that they’re going to try to govern more responsibly than Chavez has,” he speculated.
On the other hand, Noriega acknowledged, a successor might see the same benefits in the relationship that Chavez has.
“He might consider Iran an important ally in terms of some of the tactical and other advantages they can acquire from Iran,” he said. “It’s very murky what happens there and it’s something that I think we have to pay a lot closer attention to than we are today.”