AP: Vilified by world leaders wary of his nuclear ambitions, Iran’s president came to Bolivia on Thursday to strengthen ties with South American leftists who are embracing him as an energy and trade partner and counterweight to U.S. influence. The Associated Press
By ALAN CLENDENNING
LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) Vilified by world leaders wary of his nuclear ambitions, Iran’s president came to Bolivia on Thursday to strengthen ties with South American leftists who are embracing him as an energy and trade partner and counterweight to U.S. influence.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in the Amazon region city of Santa Cruz and was scheduled to fly to the capital of La Paz to establish first-time diplomatic relations with the Andean nation.
The visit comes on the heels of a U.N. General Assembly appearance in which Ahmadinejad said Iran will ignore demands by “arrogant powers” to curb its nuclear program.
He and President Evo Morales were expected to sign accords that Bolivian officials say could help them better tap the continent’s second-largest natural gas reserves after Venezuela’s and drum up urgently needed agricultural investment.
Ahmadinejad then heads to Caracas to meet Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who has defended Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes.
Ahmadinejad’s trip south underscores his strengthening links to Latin American nations that also include Nicaragua and Ecuador even as the United States tries to isolate him internationally.
“It’s a connection that is growing stronger all the time,” said Alberto Garrido, a Venezuelan writer and political analyst. “It’s Iran’s answer to the United States on its own home turf. The United States is in the Middle East, so Iran is in Latin America.”
Energy experts doubt the new Bolivia-Iran alliance will let Morales deliver on his promise of using gas profits to ease grinding poverty in South America’s poorest nation. But by opening diplomatic ties, Iran and Morales’ “anti-imperialist” administration appear to be on the same political page.
The growing closeness between Iran and Chavez-allied governments is viewed with alarm by the opposition in Venezuela and Bolivia, and by Washington, which calls Iran a sponsor of terrorism.
The move reminds Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., “of the relationship that Fidel Castro had with Russia.”
“Ahmadinejad recognizes that if he can get a foothold in Latin America, he can continue to spread his hatred for the United States,” Mack said, adding that it is now imperative for Washington to reach out more to a region analysts say it largely ignored post-Sept. 11, 2001.
“You don’t want to have your enemy at your backdoor.”
While Morales’ opponents say the stronger ties could threaten regional security, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia says his government doesn’t endorse nuclear proliferation and the two nations simply want to build commercial ties.
Bolivia is forging “diplomatic relations with Iran to improve the country’s economic situation, not to hurt or offend anyone,” Garcia said while Morales was in New York this week at the U.N.
Bolivian and Iranian officials declined to offer details on what sort of energy agreements are in the works, but analysts say Iran alone can’t give Bolivia the massive investment it needs to boost gas output in the face of potential domestic shortages and looming commitments to its big clients, Argentina and Brazil.
“I think the fact that Morales is talking to the Iranians is a sign of desperation,” said Christopher Garman, who heads Latin American research at the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy. “Bolivia is not going to have a white horse saving its energy needs.”
But Bolivia-Iran trade can hardly go anywhere but up.
Bolivia exported nothing to Iran between 2000 and 2006, and Iranian exports to Bolivia totaled only $10 million last year, according to government statistics, down from $24 million a year earlier.
Meanwhile, ties between Caracas and Tehran are strong and growing. Iran and Venezuela have signed more than 180 trade agreements since 2001, worth more than $20 billion in potential investment between the two, according to Iran’s official news agency, IRNA.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also wants closer ties with Tehran, and Iran’s PressTV reported last month that Iran will for the first time open an embassy in Quito.
President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua last month accepted promised Iranian aid of funding for 4,000 tractors, milk-processing plants, 10,000 houses, piers and the construction of a farm equipment assembly plant. In exchange, Nicaragua agreed to export coffee, meat and bananas to Iran.
Chavez is a vocal defender of Iran’s nuclear program, accusing the United States of trumping up unfounded concerns about possible nuclear weapons as a pretext to attack a regime it opposes.
“Iran isn’t making an atomic bomb, not at all,” Chavez said Monday. “They just want to develop nuclear energy. Venezuela will do it also someday.”
Associated Press writer Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.