The Associated Press
By IAN JAMES
CALABOZO, Venezuela (AP) — The foremen bark out instructions in broken Spanish, saying "aqui" and "mas" as they direct crews to lay water pipes and smooth out cement. But on their lunch break, they switch into Farsi — the language of Iran.
Their Iranian company is building thousands of apartments for Venezuela's poor. Iran is also helping to build cars, tractors and bicycles in Venezuela and has opened new embassies in Bolivia and Nicaragua.
The deepening alliance between Iran and these left-led nations is based largely on antagonism to the United States, with both Iran's hard-line leaders and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez consistently needling the U.S. government. But Iran's drive into Latin America also has practical motivations as a way to lessen its international isolation.
The most visible impact so far has been the arrival of Iranian businesses. The public housing project alone has brought more than 400 Iranian engineers and specialists to Venezuela, where many have learned basic Spanish.
"For us, it's very different, but we adapt quickly," said Ehsan Keyvanfar, a 29-year-old engineer on his first assignment outside Iran for Kayson Company, a Tehran-based construction business. A supervisor with nearly fluent Spanish, Keyvanfar has adopted the nickname "Alejandro" to spare Venezuelans from trying to pronounce his name.
He and his wife, Sara, are accustomed to city life in Tehran and have struggled with the slow pace and isolation of Calabozo, a farming town of pickup trucks and rice silos in Venezuela's dusty southern plains. But Keyvanfar sees it as a hardship assignment that will advance his career and allow him to save money.
Keyvanfar says the reason for the relationship between Iran and Venezuela is simple: "I think the two presidents don't like the United States — that's the only thing."
Iran is courting Latin America's leftist bloc with active diplomacy, joint business projects and aid while gathering support for its much-criticized nuclear program. Nicaragua has received Iranian aid pledges for a dam and milk-processing plants, and is playing down U.S. concerns about Iran's nuclear-weapon ambitions. Iran has also promised Bolivia US$1 billion in aid and investment, including plans to build a cement plant, dairies and two public health clinics.
"We're here to offer our help to support the people," Hojjatollah Soltani, Iran's top attache in Bolivia, said in an interview at the newly opened embassy in La Paz.
Some of Iran's ambitions may be dampened by falling oil prices, but its checkbook diplomacy is likely to continue.
"Iran will take every opportunity to show that it is not isolated and in the process question Washington's influence, even in its own backyard," said Farideh Farhi, a researcher at the University of Hawaii who writes frequently about Iran's foreign policy.
Venezuela could also give Iran breathing space as it tries to weather the financial pressure of U.N. and U.S. sanctions over its nuclear program. Venezuela could end up being an outlet for Iran to move money, obtain high-tech equipment and access the world financial system.
This concern has already led Washington to impose new sanctions on an Iran-owned bank in Caracas last month, accusing it of providing financial services in support for Iran's weapons program. The bank, Banco Internacional de Desarrollo, recently opened an unobtrusive office on the eighth floor of a Caracas high-rise that looks out over the palm trees of an exclusive golf course. Its president didn't respond to repeated interview requests by The Associated Press.
Venezuela has already become Iran's gateway for travel to the region, with a flight between Tehran and Caracas every other Tuesday. Chavez says Venezuela's state airline bought an Airbus jet especially for the route, which includes a stop in Damascus, Syria. Venezuela has a large Arab community of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, many of whom arrived decades ago.
At the airport, women in head scarves pushed luggage carts and strollers out of customs on a recent evening as they returned from trips to visit family in Syria and Iran. Several engineers from Kayson Company greeted their wives with hugs.
U.S. officials say they are worried about the possibility of terrorists and Iranian intelligence agents arriving on the flights. The U.S. State Department charged in an April terrorism report that "passengers on these flights were not subject to immigration and customs controls."
Top American diplomat Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, has said the U.S. is concerned about "what Iran is doing elsewhere in this hemisphere and what it could do if we were to find ourselves in some kind of confrontation."
One of the biggest worries for U.S. and Israeli officials is Iran's long history of funding and aiding Islamic militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah. They point to accusations by Argentine authorities that Iran backed Hezbollah in carrying out the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires which killed 29 people, and also the 1994 attack which leveled the Jewish community center there and killed 85. Iran and Hezbollah have denied involvement.
The U.S. Treasury Department announced in June that it found Hezbollah was receiving support from a Venezuelan diplomat and a Lebanese-born businessman living in Caracas. The diplomat, Ghazi Nasr al Din, is assigned to the Venezuelan Embassy in Syria, and the U.S. said he used his position to provide financial support to the Lebanese militant group and "counseled Hezbollah donors on fundraising efforts." The diplomat is also accused of arranging travel for Hezbollah members to and from Venezuela, and to attend a training course in Iran.
Venezuela has denied the accusations, saying the U.S. government is out to malign Chavez for political purposes. Chavez, who plans another visit to Tehran by year's end, ridicules the idea of Venezuela and Iran teaming up as an "axis of evil."
His own government plans to start its own nuclear energy program and insists it won't be used for weapons. Chavez once joked, riding a bike produced by an Iranian-Venezuelan joint venture, that the two countries are building the "atomic bicycle."
Iran also says its aims in Latin America are purely peaceful.
Iranian tractors are now being driven by farmers in parts of Venezuela and Bolivia, and the first cars produced by Venirauto, a joint venture, are on Venezuelan roads.
Meanwhile, concrete apartment blocks are going up on farmland in the southern plains. Kayson Company employs nearly 6,000 workers to build four public housing complexes with 10,000 apartments across the country, including the 2,700-unit subdivision in Calabozo.
The Iranians joke about the town's name, which in Spanish means "dungeon" or "jail," saying they're a three-hour drive away from the nearest shopping mall or movie theater. But they also enjoy comforts such as an Iranian club where they gather to drink tea, play chess and shoot pool.
The Iranian company has weathered sporadic conflicts with labor unions, but at the same time many of its employees have grown close to their Venezuelan co-workers. Some of them have even become godparents to children of Venezuelan employees. Venezuelan cooks in the cafeteria have learned to prepare Iranian dishes, from kebabs to abgusht — a broth served with beef and potatoes — along with pita bread and yogurt.
Some of the supervisors at the construction site say expatriate professionals are a major part of Iran's growing presence in Venezuela, and that the U.S. government's worries are misplaced.
"We're building homes, but in Europe and America they say we're making homes for Hezbollah," said Mostafa Malek, a supervisor in charge of cement. "They have a problem with our government. They say it's a terrorist government. But we aren't like that. ... There can be problems between our governments, but there are no problems between our peoples."
Associated Press writers Dan Keane in La Paz, Bolivia; Filadelfo Aleman in Managua, Nicaragua; Sally Buzbee in Cairo, Egypt; and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed to this report.