WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Latin American countries on Friday not to get too close to Iran, calling it “a really bad idea” that could have consequences.
Clinton said the United States was well aware Iran had stepped up its diplomatic activities in the region, citing Venezuela and Bolivia in particular.
“We can only say that is a really bad idea for the countries involved,” Clinton told a State Department briefing on Latin American relations.
“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.”
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 close ties with Iran, Russia and other countries in recent years.
Clinton’s comments were among the strongest yet from Washington about growing links between some Latin American countries and Iran, which U.S. President Barack Obama and other western leaders accuse of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
Clinton said Washington would continue to express concerns about Venezuela — where Chavez won a referendum in February that allows him to keep running for re-election — and about Nicaragua, where the Supreme Court in October opened the way for leftist President Daniel Ortega to seek a new term in a 2011 election.
“I worry about how we get back on the track where we recognize that democracy is not about individual leaders, it is about strong institutions,” Clinton said.
“Good leaders come and go. Obviously we’ve had our own experience in this country with that,” Clinton said, adding that Washington also hoped to see change in communist Cuba.
“We all hope in the not too distant future to be able to see a democratic Cuba ... something that would be extraordinarily positive for our hemisphere,” Clinton said.
She defended the U.S. reaction to the coup in Honduras, saying the United States had pursued a “pragmatic, principled, multilateral approach” aimed at restoring democracy.
The U.S. response to the coup — encouraging the country to go ahead with previously scheduled elections and backing the Tegucigalpa accord to resolve the crisis — has strained ties with Latin American countries like Brazil and Argentina because the toppled leader, Manuel Zelaya, has not returned to power.
Responding to a question about growing Chinese influence in Latin America, Clinton said the United States was urging regional governments to keep up their guard.
“We have no problem with any country, such as China, engaging in economic activities, business, commerce with any country anywhere,” she said.
“But we do want governments to drive hard bargains. We don’t want to see corruption that benefits the fortunes of a few leaders and undermines the sustainability of the economy and the environment and the natural resources of any country.”
Reporting by David Alexander; Writing by Andrew Quinn; Editing by John O'Callaghan