(Reuters) - Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is due to visit Venezuela and other Latin American countries from Sunday, seeking to shore up support as tougher Western sanctions threaten its oil exports and economy.
Both fierce anti-U.S. ideologues, Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez have become close political and commercial allies in recent years, to the annoyance of Washington. Following are some facts about Venezuela-Iran ties:
Ahmadinejad and Chavez want to weaken U.S. “imperialism” and favor a world divided into multiple centers of power. Venezuela’s socialist leader once called his Iranian counterpart a “gladiator of anti-imperialist battles.”
U.S. officials have expressed concerns about Iran’s ties with left-leaning Latin American governments including Ecuador, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
Tehran has increased its relations with the commodities-rich but economically-poor region, promising to build homes, dairies and factories to produce vehicles. In return, it gets diplomatic support for its nuclear program.
Some in the United States, including right-wing politicians and media, fear the cooperation goes deeper and that Venezuela might help Iran build nuclear weapons, a charge that both deny.
Like some other Latin American leaders including Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, Venezuela supports Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes.
Chavez himself dropped plans to build a nuclear reactor following last year’s earthquake and tsunami that crippled a Japanese nuclear power plant. He says he is opposed to atomic weapons. Iran is helping Venezuela map its uranium deposits, although Venezuela does not yet mine the mineral.
Iran’s defense minister visited Venezuela in 2010, the first such visit since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The two countries’ armed forces said a deal between them included cooperation on training, but did not give details.
Venezuela vigorously denied reports in European media last year that Iran was building a missile base in the South American country.
Venezuela and Iran are allies within OPEC. In 2010 they agreed to invest $760 million in each other’s energy sectors, and Venezuela pledged to export 20,000 barrels of gasoline per day to Iran to a total value of $800 million.
Washington slapped limited sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA after U.S. officials said it sent at least two cargoes of reformate, a gasoline blending component, to Iran between December 2010 and March 2011 worth about $50 million.
Washington says the shipments broke international trade sanctions on Tehran, and its move barred PDVSA from access to U.S. government contracts and export financing. But the company avoided tough limits on its use of U.S. markets for financing, and its exports of just under 1 million barrels per day to the United States continued as normal.
The sanctions on PDVSA came after months of pressure from conservatives in Congress to take action against Chavez for his support of Iran.
Venezuela and Iran are critics of global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In 2010 they set up a joint development bank with starting capital of $200 million.
In 2008 the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the subsidiary of an Iranian bank operating in Venezuela. Washington said the bank helped Iran channel money to weapons programs. Iran and Venezuela both denied the charge.
The following year, a U.S. district attorney said he was investigating several Venezuelan banks for allegedly helping Iran dodge sanctions.
Chavez’s strident opposition to Israeli foreign policy has helped boost his popularity in the Muslim world.
He calls Israel a “genocidal state” for its military actions against the Palestinians and for its 2006 war in Lebanon, but he has not backed Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Holocaust is a “deception.”
However, he has faced criticism in the region for his intransigent backing of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his description of Libyan rebel bosses as stooges of Washington.
Venezuelan exports to Iran are just a fraction of the South American country’s imports from Iran, which in 2009 were worth almost $90 million.
The two countries have signed dozens of deals that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars on paper. Iran has built housing developments, dairies and vehicle factories in Venezuela.
Chavez announced in 2006 the establishment of a regular air service between Caracas and Tehran, but the flights were suspended in 2010.
Reporting by Caracas newsroom