Latin America warms to Iran amid anti-U.S. sentiment
CARACAS (Reuters) - Iran is gaining influence in Latin America as the region turns away from Washington and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad courts new allies to counter U.S. efforts to isolate his government.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and other leftist leaders from Cuba to Ecuador, many of them sympathetic to Chavez's anti-U.S. rhetoric, have struck energy, trade and investment deals with Iran.
The growing ties come despite international criticism of Tehran's nuclear enrichment program and a possible new U.N. sanctions resolution against it.
But the United States now faces relentless criticism from the Venezuela-led bloc of left-wing leaders in Latin America.
Chavez, who is pushing a self-styled socialist revolution openly opposed to Washington, has nudged his allies to do business with Ahmadinejad's Iran.
"Since there has been no coherent United States policy toward Latin America, there's a window of opportunity for the Iranians to come fill the vacuum," said Riordan Roett of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University.
Venezuela and Iran have signed scores of accords ranging from car and tractor factories to agreements giving Tehran access to Venezuelan oil fields. Venezuelan is also supplying gasoline to Iran as it struggles with domestic rationing.
"The two countries will together defeat the imperialism of North America," a beaming Chavez said during an official visit to Iran last month.
Iran has also moved beyond Venezuela with Ahmadinejad visiting other countries in the region.
Ecuador, which has worried Wall Street with threats to halt payments on some of its foreign debt, last month signed a deal to boost investment and bilateral trade with Iran.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who led a Marxist government in a civil war against U.S.-backed rebels in the 1980s and returned to power this year, has secured Iranian investment in a $350 million ocean port and a $120 million hydroelectric plant to ease chronic blackouts.
Communist Cuba, which like Iran is under a U.S. embargo, has brought in Iranian investment in infrastructure and construction projects and negotiated supply contracts to provide Iran with medical technology.
Iran's business interests extend beyond the Chavez-led bloc. Brazil's moderate leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has encouraged trade with Iran and state oil company Petrobras' oil exploration efforts there.
Lula has, however, avoided any overtly political affiliation and his government has banned the sale and transfer of nuclear equipment and technology to Iran.
Argentina, led by another leftist, President Nestor Kirchner, has vigorously avoided any rapprochement.
Last year, it ordered an international arrest warrant for former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on charges of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
Analysts say some Latin American countries are seeking new alliances in part because the U.S. government has largely ignored the region in recent years as it focuses on its declared war against terrorism.
China has extended its economic influence across much of Latin America, and Iran uses its alliances to help prevent its isolation by Washington on the global stage.
"Iran is trying to create a geopolitical balance with the United States," said Bill Samii, an Iran expert with the Center for Naval Analyses in Virginia. "With U.S. troops operating in the Persian Gulf, they're trying to say 'We can operate in your neck of the woods too.'"
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