Reuters: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday wraps up a four-nation tour of Latin America that yielded kind words from ideological allies but no clear offers to help ease Western sanctions against its nuclear program.
By Enrique Andres Pretel
QUITO (Reuters) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday wraps up a four-nation tour of Latin America that yielded kind words from ideological allies but no clear offers to help ease Western sanctions against its nuclear program.
The limited results from his tour of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador reinforce the view that Iran will need to rely on diplomatic heavyweights like China or Russia to help stave off sanctions that for the first time threaten its oil income.
Latin America’s most prominent left-wing presidents, led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, have defended Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy and slammed tightened measures by Washington.
But while burnishing their “anti-imperialist” credentials and showering Ahmadinejad with praise, the bloc of socialist allies offered few signs they can help Iran undercut sanctions with cash or fuel.
“It’s a diplomatic show of sorts, doing the rounds of his partners in the region, it’s a reminder to anyone who’s watching that Iran continues to have relationships with countries in Latin America,” said Risa Grais-Targow from the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy.
Ahmadinejad received the warmest welcome from Chavez, who mocked accusations that Iran is building a nuclear weapon, and he later visited Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Cuba’s Raul Castro and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.
But Ahmadinejad was largely silent on key issues including the bomb attack in Tehran this week that killed an Iranian nuclear scientist, the condemning to death of an Iranian-American man for spying, Iran’s threats to close oil traffic in the vital Straight of Hormuz, and the start of uranium enrichment.
When directly asked how Iran would confront an expanding economic embargo, Ahmadinejad avoided going into details and instead borrowed from the leftist rhetoric of his Latin American hosts.
“The problem is not the nuclear issue, the problem is the independence and progress of free peoples,” said Ahmadinejad during a news conference in Ecuador. “The dominant and hegemonic powers will not allow the progress and development of independent nations.”
In contrast to Ahmadinejad’s previous Latin American tour, regional heavyweight Brazil was not on his agenda this time as its new government has distanced itself from Tehran.
On New Year’s Eve, U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law by far the toughest financial sanctions yet against Iran. If fully implemented, they could make it exceedingly difficult for most countries to pay for Iranian oil. The European Union, which still buys a fifth of Iran’s 2.6 million barrels per day of exports, is expected to announce an embargo this month.
When asked if Iran would block the Straight of Hormuz in response to sanctions, Ahmadinejad told Mexican television station Televisa in an interview shown on Friday that “the sanctions and embargoes against Iran have had no effect.”
He added that “if the United States wants to bother the people of Iran, the people of Iran will stand strong and will respond firmly.”
Iran has done a raft of deals in Latin America nations ranging from housing construction agreements with Venezuela to financing for Cuba’s purchases of Iranian-made train cars.
But operational problems and delays have plagued many of those projects, and critics dismiss them as diplomatically motivated white elephants rather than productive enterprises.
The United States and its allies accuse Iran of aiming to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear program is only for power generation and other peaceful purposes.
(Writing by Brian Ellsworth, additional reporting by Veronica Gomez in Mexico City, Editing by Kieran Murray and Vicki Allen)