WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned Latin American countries against becoming too closely involved with Iran, saying it was "a really bad idea" that could have consequences for them.
Clinton, fielding questions December 11 at a State Department forum on U.S. relations with Latin America, said Washington was aware Iran had stepped up diplomatic activity in the region.
Latin American leftist presidents, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, are fierce critics of U.S. foreign policy and have forged closer ties with Iran, Russia and other countries recently.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visited Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela in late November. The visit came at a time of rising pressure on Tehran to begin negotiating with international powers over its nuclear program by the end of the year or face new sanctions.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has opposed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear enrichment program, which major powers fear is for developing atomic weapons but Tehran says is for energy production.
Involvement with Iran "is a really bad idea for the countries involved," Clinton said in comments that were among the strongest yet from Washington about growing links between Iran and Latin America.
"This is the major supporter, promoter and exporter of terrorism in the world today," she said. "If people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them. And we hope that they will think twice."
"I think she wanted to lay a marker in terms of expectations for hemispheric engagement," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas.
He said no one would fault Brazil or Venezuela for having trade ties with Iran, but "why would you willingly invite the leader of Iran to come to your country for an official visit at exactly the same time that much of the rest of the world is ... condemning Iran for its nuclear proliferation activity?"
"At the least, it showed a tin ear for international politics from some of the Latin Americans," Farnsworth said. "I think at a more serious level it showed at least a willingness to go against the global consensus."