Iran General NewsIran’s Ahmadinejad cancels Brazil trip indefinitely

Iran’s Ahmadinejad cancels Brazil trip indefinitely

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ImageBloomberg: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad canceled a trip to Brazil this week without explanation amid criticism at home from the country’s clerical leader and U.S. concern about Iran’s growing influence in Latin America.

By Joshua Goodman and Ladane Nasseri

ImageMay 4 (Bloomberg) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad canceled a trip to Brazil this week without explanation amid criticism at home from the country’s clerical leader and U.S. concern about Iran’s growing influence in Latin America.

The state visit of more than 100 officials and businessmen was set to begin tomorrow in Brasilia and focus on expanding the countries’ trade, which quadrupled to $2 billion in 2007 from 2002.

Ahmadinejad has been seeking allies among nations critical of U.S. policy in the conflict over U.S.-led efforts to shut down his nuclear program. Since coming to power in 2005, he has visited Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the U.S.’s fiercest critic in the region, as well as allied governments in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, where U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week Iran was building a “huge” embassy that undermines U.S. interests in the region.

The trip, including stops in Venezuela and Ecuador, was postponed indefinitely, Ahmadinejad’s office said in a statement, without saying why the plans changed. Roberto Jaguaribe, a political undersecretary at Brazil’s foreign ministry, told reporters in Brasilia it will be rescheduled for a date after Iran’s June 12 elections. Lula may visit Iran following an Ahmadinejad trip to Brasilia, he said.

Public Setback

In Iran today, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei overturned a decision by Ahmadinejad to merge two state organizations, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. The leader’s statement, which comes in advance of June 12 presidential elections, is a public setback for Ahmadinejad, said Farideh Farhi, who studies Iran at the University of Hawaii.

Ahmadinejad received the invitation to Latin America’s largest country in November, when Brazil for the first time in 17 years sent its foreign minister to Tehran, and after its state-controlled oil company, Petroleo Brasileiro SA, began exploration in the Iranian waters of the Caspian Sea.

U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who chairs the subcommittee overseeing relations with Latin America, said in an interview before the trip was canceled that he was disappointed by Lula’s move.

“Instead of shunning someone many people consider a pariah, Brazil seems to be rewarding him,” said Engel, who is also co-chair of Congressional Brazil Caucus. “It makes it a lot harder for people like me who want the U.S. to enhance relations with Brazil. Frankly, I’m at a loss to explain it.”

‘Disturbing’

Iran’s push to expand economic and political ties in Latin America is “disturbing” and not in U.S. interests, Clinton said May 1.

Iran and Venezuela last week signed an agreement to deepen military ties after a series of deals that include funding a bilateral development bank with $200 million of capital. Iran has also promised investments in the energy and petrochemical industries of Chavez’s allies Ecuador and Bolivia.

Acceptance by Lula, the leader of the Latin America’s biggest economy, puts Iran on a new diplomatic plane in the region.

Still, even supporters of Lula’s foreign policy think that in embracing Ahmadinejad he is going too far.

“It’s a mistake and inappropriate,” said Roberto Abdenur, who was Lula’s ambassador to Washington from 2004 to 2007. “What this man says and represents completely contradict what Brazil stands for, its commitment to peace and its repudiation of anti-Semitism.”

Negative Impact

Abdenur said Lula is underestimating the negative impact the visit could cause in the U.S., where Clinton threatened “crippling” sanctions if Tehran rebuffs diplomatic efforts to curb its nuclear program, as well as in other countries.

In neighboring Argentina, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner been pushing Iran to handover five former officials wanted for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people. Iranian-backed terrorist groups such as Hezbollah have been increasing money laundering in the border area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, James Stavridis, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, warned last month.

Brazil’s foreign ministry in a diplomatic note expressed “concern” over Ahmadinejad’s April 20 speech at a UN racism conference in Geneva, in which he accused the West of using the Holocaust as “pretext” to oppress Palestinians, and said objections would be raised during the visit.

Jewish Protest

That didn’t satisfy Brazil’s 100,000-member Jewish community. A few thousand rallied over the weekend in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, carrying banners that read “President Lula: explain to your guest what freedom of expression means.”

Marco Aurelio Garcia, Lula’s top foreign policy adviser, downplayed the controversy, telling reporters April 27 that Ahmadinejad’s visit “doesn’t mean that we share the same opinions.” He pointed to Obama’s own steps to engage Iran, like delivering a videotaped message and joining European allies in talks over its nuclear program, which drew UN sanctions in 2006.

Trade Secretary Welber Barral was blunter: “For us it’s a matter of pecunia non olet,” he said in an interview, citing the Latin phrase for “Money Doesn’t Smell.”

The U.S. State Department would not comment on the invitation. A spokesperson said in a statement, before the visit was postponed, that it was a country’s sovereign decision whether to pursue ties with Iran, and that those who did should push Iran to meet its international obligations.

“I can’t think of any national interest that justifies such a loss of credibility,” said Rubens Ricuperio, who was Brazil’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1991-1993. “There’s no point being defiant just to prove your independence.”

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