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Iran leader visits region


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Iran leader visits region

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WASHINGTON, CMC – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday began a four-nation tour of the region, showcasing his support to allies against a backdrop of international tensions over his nation’s nuclear programme. He is set to visit some of the United States’ most ardent critics: Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador. But the list of countries Ahmadinejad will not be visiting is equally telling, observers say. Though Iran is reeling from successive rounds of international and unilateral sanctions, Ahmadinejad is not visiting Brazil, the region’s economic powerhouse. Nor is he going to other large and small countries like Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, underscoring that his visit is limited to nations without extensive influence or the capacity to offer much of a major economic partnership. St. Vincent and the Grenadines has received financial aid from Iran in construction of an international airport.   “If Iran is intent on spreading its political influence, it will not find a hospitable environment in Latin America,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “Most governments may want more breathing space from Washington, but they are not looking to be aligned strategically with Tehran,” he added. The trip, Ahmadinejad’s sixth official visit to the region since becoming president in 2005, seems intended as a counterstrike against Iran’s increasing international isolation. But his previous trips have not always gone smoothly; his one visit to Brazil, in 2009, was met with protests. “Dealing with Iran has been nettlesome for Brazil,” said Stephen C. Johnson, director of the Americas programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for welcoming Iran’s president at this time, particularly as sanctions begin to tighten and there are continuing indications that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon,” he added. Iran remains an important trading partner for Brazil, passing Russia last year as the top export market for Brazilian beef. It is also a large buyer of Brazilian sugar and soybeans. But the relationship is asymmetrical and may be more important to Iran, analysts say. In 2010, Brazil was Iran’s 10th largest trading partner, ranked by the value of goods exchanged, according to data compiled by the European Union’s directorate general for trade. But Iran ranked 27th among Brazil’s trading partners. As for Iran’s trade with some other countries in the region, including Ecuador, it has grown considerably in a short time, but still remains relatively small. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is Ahmadinejad’s most vociferous ally in the region, but Iran ranks 42nd on the list of Venezuela’s trading partners, accounting for less than 0.1 per cent of Venezuela’s total imports and exports, according to the European Commission data. With the international sparring over Iran’s nuclear programme escalating, analysts say the visit gives Ahmadinejad the chance to “glad hand” with leaders from other countries who have shown sympathy and solidarity. He will attend the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua on Tuesday. The visit also brings benefits for Ahmadinejad’s hosts, giving them the opportunity to thumb their noses at the United States in front of their own political constituents. “You shore up your base,” Johnson said of the impact of the visit for leaders like Mr. Chávez in Venezuela. “You enhance your standing as an actor on the global stage.” Iran appears eager to exploit seams in hemispheric relations at a time that the United States’ sway has diminished, analysts say. The Organization of American States, a traditional mechanism for Washington to project its influence, was weakened last year when Brazil delayed its annual US$6.5 million payment to the body. The dispute arose after the organization’s human rights commission called on Brazil to suspend construction of its Belo Monte dam complex in the Amazon River basin. Countries in the region are also seeking new alliances to counterbalance the traditional weight of the United States. A meeting of heads of state from Latin America and the Caribbean, including Cuba, which is excluded from the OAS, was held in Caracas in December. The United States was not invited. Analysts say the regional dynamic has also shifted as other major countries, particularly China, make large investments and take an increasing role in trade. Iran’s ties in the region have often resulted in announcements of joint economic initiatives, like the establishment of development funds, construction of car or tractor factories in countries like Venezuela or Bolivia, or a port project in Nicaragua. But the projects have either failed to materialize or offered little in the way of real economic activity, analysts say. Douglas C. Farah, a senior fellow of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a national security research group in Alexandria, Virginia, said such financial relationships were easily manipulated. “It gives them a chance to get into countries to buy much needed equipment and ways to get into financial systems that will allow them, unsanctioned, to move their money around the world,” Farah said.

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