AFP: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is locked in a tense standoff with the United States, embarks on a Latin American tour here Saturday as he arrives for talks with his ideological “brother,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. CARACAS, Jan 13, 2007 (AFP) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is locked in a tense standoff with the United States, embarks on a Latin American tour here Saturday as he arrives for talks with his ideological “brother,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The trip will also include visits to Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, countries controlled by governments critical of Washington.
Ahmadinejad has heaped praise on Chavez for his outspoken support of Iran’s disputed nuclear program, which the US and European governments say is part of a project to build atomic weapons.
Facing sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council over its uranium enrichment work and the threat of international isolation, Iran is keen to demonstrate it has backing among a number of leftist leaders in Latin America.
Chavez is the most vocal cheerleader in Latin America for Iran and its hardline president, with both men calling each other “brother” and relishing their status as fierce opponents of Washington’s influence.
“Hugo is my brother,” Ahmadinejad said during his last visit to Venezuela in September, when the two leaders inaugurated a joint oil well. “Hugo is the champion of the fight against imperialism.”
In September 2005, Venezuela was alone in opposing a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that found Iran in violation of nuclear safeguards. Since then, Chavez has backed to the hilt Iran’s right to enrich uranium.
Iran and Venezuela are both important players in OPEC and have signed numerous cooperation agreements in the energy sector and other fields.
During a visit to Iran last September, Chavez came out in support of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as denouncing Israeli military operations in Lebanon.
The two presidents also signed deals covering iron and steel production, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and health care equipment, and munitions.
While Ahmadinejad sought to cultivate Latin American allies, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to the Middle East to rally Arab support for a new US strategy in Iraq and to counter Iran’s alleged interference in Iraq.
Before her departure, Rice warned that the United States would not be passive in the face of what she called Iran’s “regional aggression.”
“I think you will see that the United States is not going to simply stand idly by and let these activities continue,” she said.
After his one-day visit to Caracas, Ahmadinejad plans to head to Managua to hold talks with Nicaraguan president-elect Daniel Ortega, a Cold War foe of the United States who is due to be sworn in on Wednesday.
Ortega was the former Marxist leader of the leftist front that ousted a US-backed dictator in 1979 and seized private assets, distributed land to poor farmers and battled US-financed Contra rebels throughout the 1980s.
On Monday, Ahmadinejad will take part in the swearing-in ceremony of Ecuador’s new president Rafael Correa, who has vowed to forge stronger ties with Venezuela and not to renew a lease for a US military air base on the country’s Pacific Coast.
The Iranian president will also hold meetings with other South American presidents including Bolivia’s Evo Morales on the sidelines of the ceremony in Ecuador, before finishing his tour on Tuesday.