Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will be visiting Latin America this week for the fifth time since 2007 as often as U.S. presidents over the same period, and visiting more countries than them. He must have powerful reasons to spend so much time in the region.
Ahmadinejads five-day trip to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador which U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, has labeled a tour of tyrants comes at a time of growing international tensions over Irans failure to comply with United Nations nuclear non-proliferation agreements.
The United States and the 27-country European Community have announced new economic sanctions on Iran, including a possible European oil embargo, following a November United Nations report that Iran is likely to be developing a nuclear bomb. Iran is threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, where 35 percent of the worlds oil goes through, if U.S. and European sanctions limit its oil exports.
There are two major theories within the U.S. diplomatic community on Ahmadinejads trip:
U.S. foreign policy hard-liners, including most Republican presidential candidates, say Irans growing presence in Latin America is a demonstration of power by a terrorist regime.
The Iranians have a vision of themselves of being a global power, and they feel that they have the momentum, says Roger Noriega, a Republican foreign policy hawk who headed the U.S. State Departments Latin American affairs office during the George W. Bush presidency.
They feel that they blocked the U.S. presence in Iraq, they are angling to undermine the U.S. agreement with Afghanistan, and they want to challenge us in our neighborhood, he adds.
According to Noriega, Iran is getting help from Venezuela, and perhaps from Ecuador, to mine uranium for its nuclear program. In addition, Iran is building a network of local operatives in Latin America to strike back at U.S. and Israeli targets in the region should there be a military attack against Irans nuclear facilities, Noriega says.
The United States says Iran is the worlds leading sponsor of terrorism, providing weapons to several terrorist groups and actively promoting suicide bombings in the Middle East. Argentina has also accused Iran of carrying out bloody bombings against the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in 1992 and 1994.
U.S. foreign policy moderates, on the other hand, side with the State Departments view that Ahmadinejads visit to Latin America may be a sign of weakness.
The Iranian leader is increasingly isolated at home and abroad, and is desperately seeking to project an image of strength by showing his countrymen that he is being welcomed abroad, U.S. moderates say.
At home, Ahmadinejad has lost the support of the nations fundamentalist supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and at the same time faces a growing challenge from reformist leaders such as presidential hopeful Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Irans economy is deteriorating badly, and new international sanctions could make things worse. Rising food prices could drive up public discontent, which has already risen significantly since the regimes brutal repression of protests over Ahmadinejads dubious 2009 electoral victory.
Meantime, Syrias regime Irans closest Middle Eastern ally is increasingly threatened by an internal revolt.
Asked about Ahmadinejads trip, a well-placed State Department official told me that its a frantic effort to break his growing domestic and international isolation. As for allegations that Iran is getting nuclear cooperation from Venezuela, and may be creating local terrorist networks in the region, the official said that Irans threat to the U.S. national security interests in Latin America is latent, rather than active.
My opinion: I tend to side with the moderates, in that Irans fascist ruler is trying to show his people at home that he is not a world pariah, and that he is still received as a world figure abroad.
Still, the Latin American presidents who are welcoming him are not only embracing a tyranny which according to Amnesty International severely restricts fundamental freedoms and executed up to 552 people last year, more than any other country except China but may also be setting up violent support groups in Latin America to use as an insurance policy against an attack against its nuclear facilities.
By welcoming Ahmadinejad, they are importing a foreign conflict, and that can only bring bad things to the region. The 1990s bombings in Argentina speak for themselves.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at firstname.lastname@example.org. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.