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Iran's Ahmadinejad In Venezuela For Talks With Chavez

  • Michael Hirshman

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad arrived in Caracas late on November 24.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad arrived in Caracas late on November 24.

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is in Venezuela for talks with President Hugo Chavez, another outspoken anti-American leader, on the final stop on his Latin America tour.

After red-carpet receptions in Brazil and Bolivia, the Venezuela visit provoked more vociferous domestic opposition.

"The similarities [between Chavez and Ahmadinejad] are striking," says Elsa Cardozo, a columnist for the Venezuelan daily "El Nacional."

She cites the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Venezuela and the breaking-off of diplomatic relations earlier this year as evidence of Chavez being "very aggressive in his rejection of Israel."

"In recent times, President Chavez's rhetoric has been very confrontational, like that of Mr. Ahmadinejad, with his anti-imperialist rhetoric: his calls for war, his military expenditures, [his] agreements with Russia and China, [his] agreements promoting nuclear cooperation with Iran," Cardozo says. "It is a very-provocative policy, very defiant to the international order [and] to international institutions."

Two main groups have spoken out against President Ahmadinejad's visit.

Venezuelan Jews have protested, saying Ahmadinejad poses a threat to humanity. That community has become increasingly alarmed as Chavez, like Ahmadinejad, has cut ties and adopted fiery rhetoric against Israel.

Venezuela's political opposition has also condemned Ahmadinejad's visit, calling him an "unwanted dictator." They claim that Chavez is irresponsible in establish common cause with the controversial Iranian leader.

At first glance, Chavez's populist, socialist government would seem to have little in common with Ahmadinejad's conservative regime, which serves under a clerically dominated system.

Yet Cardozo says there are some similarities. "We also ask ourselves [about this alliance, but] reality, in the speeches of President Chavez, there is less and less emphasis on the progressive and socialist and even communist elements and there is more and more emphasis on a militaristic vision -- defensive and aggressive -- and that eliminates any other difference," she says.

Ahmadinejad and Chavez were to attend a Venezuela-Iran business conference, which was expected to produce several trade and industrial agreements. An advance group of representatives from 70 Iranian companies arrived in Venezuela for talks earlier in the week.

Iran has invested in a series of projects in Venezuela from dairies to automobiles. Iran has also helped the South-American country map its uranium reserves.

In return, Venezuela has agreed to provide Iran 20,000 barrels per day of gasoline. This commitment could help cushion Iran in the case of potential fuel sanctions over its nuclear program.

But Carlos Malamud, a Latin America expert at Spain's Real Instituto Elcano, warns that Venezuela's ability to boost Iran may be compromised by its own internal economic weakness.

"The possibility that Venezuela will be there to help Iran in the case of international sanctions had been brought up on repeated occasions -- they have agreed to many projects with this possibility in mind," Malamud says. "What one has to bear in mind is the difficult economic situation that Venezuela is facing...and to this situation you have to add the problem of inflation running between 26 and 30 percent at the end of the year with serious water problems and energy, which is starting to complicate Chavez's popularity."

More Than Just Venezuela

Yet as Ahmadinejad's tour has made clear, Iran's ties with Latin America are broadening beyond ties with the Chavez government.

Ahmadinejad arrived in Venezuela late on November 24 following visits to Brazil and Bolivia.

Ahmadinejad was received in Brazil by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a moderate leftist who presides over South America's largest economy. Da Silva reiterated his support for Iran's nuclear program, encouraging the Iranian leader to pursue dialogue with the West.

Support by political moderate Brazil, which will have a seat on the UN Security Council next year, has proved a boon to Iran as it has faced criticism over its nuclear ambitions.

Ahmadinejad then visited Bolivia and its leftist president, Evo Morales. Iran has provided aid to the poor, mountainous country.

Ahmadinejad and Morales issued a joint declaration of the right of nations to pursue nuclear energy.

They also signed an agreement for Iranian involvement in exploiting Bolivia's lithium resources, estimated to constitute half the world's total reserves. Lithium is an important mineral in producing rechargeable batteries for phones, cars, and personal computers.

"All countries have the right to conduct business and commercial relations with whomever they wish, but as the president of the Jewish community of [Bolivia], I condemn entirely the presence of this man in Bolivia," said Ricardo Udler, president of the Israelite Circle of Bolivia. "You are talking to the son of a Holocaust survivor. It fills me with fear to have to see in my country a person who denies the existence of the Holocaust."

Ahmadinejad will travel to Senegal on November 26 on his way back to Iran.