President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran wrapped up his five-day tour of Latin America Friday, securing the political support of leaders in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Surinam, and Ecuador for Iran’s right to peacefully develop nuclear technology, even as the United States ramps up economic pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
Given Iran’s history of human rights abuses and suppression of basic human freedoms, it's reassuring to see that Iran was welcomed with open arms in so few places — only with economically weak nations with sympathetic leftist leaders. On its surface, Ahmadinejad’s trip was meant to show the world and his own people that Iran is not isolated. But underneath the pomp and grandiloquence lingered Iran’s failed diplomacy in America’s backyard. For those who see Ahmadinejad as the new face of religious extremism and terror, they can take comfort knowing that Ahmadinejad’s tour has not harmed American influence in the region. Iran is entering into 2012 without a strong ally in Latin America.
During the tour, Ahmadinejad’s sixth to the region, leftist leaders warmly greeted Ahmadinejad and pledged their solidarity with the Iranian people, urging him to resist the “crazy moves of hegemonic powers” that threaten to topple his government. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, for his part, questioned claims by the United States and a recent United Nations report that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. The United States, which opposes Iran possessing a nuclear weapon, imposed an oil embargo on Iran in December to punish Ahmadinejad’s regime.
"How can we accept these kinds of reports?" Correa told Ecuador’s daily El Universal. "The report concluded, in quotes, that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, something it has always denied, and we believe them."
Ahmadinejad’s tour was at once politically motivated, with Ahmadinejad slamming U.S. imperialism at every turn in an attempt to improve Iran’s image, and economically driven. Since the onslaught of the global financial crisis in 2008, Iran’s trade with the region has dropped significantly. Ahmadinejad has sought to strengthen Iran’s economic ties with Latin America, but taken together trade with Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador represented about $150 million, or 0.1% of Iran’s import and export economy in 2010, according to the European Union’s commission on international trade. Only several years earlier, in 2007, trade between Ecuador and Iran alone totaled $168 million, prompting the Atlantic Sentinel to call Iran’s most recent political excursion into Latin America a “joke,” as many promises by Iran to the region remain unkept. Iran’s top trading partners are the United Arab Emirates, China, India, Japan, and Turkey.
“The Iranian did come to Brazil in 2009 when he last visited the region but promises made then have yet to be fulfilled—among them, pledges to build an oil refinery in Ecuador and a port in Nicaragua,” it said.
Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad paid special attention to Venezuela, where American influence is perceived to be less prevalent, spending over five hours in talks with President Hugo Chavez. Officials reported several breakthroughs in the talks, including a promise from Chavez for increased Venezuelan investment in Iranian infrastructure projects and greater cooperation on nanotechnology development. Nonetheless, these agreements are unlikely to lift Iran out of its current economic quagmire.
But the most striking thing about the tour was where Ahmadinejad did not go. Ahmadinejad didn’t visit Iran’s top Latin American trading partner, Brazil, whose two-way trade with Iran was nearly $700 million in 2010, representing 0.4% of Iran’s total foreign trade for that year. This is perhaps due to a cooling off of relations between Iran and Brazil, whose new Western-leaning leader, President Dilma Rousseff, prefers to forge closer ties with Washington, snubbing Iran. This comes as no surprise. Fallout between the two nations had been alluded to the same year by former President Lula da Silva, who made headlines while on a diplomatic tour in Israel, calling both Chavez and Ahmadinejad “nuts” that need to be controlled.
Taken together, Ahmadinejad may have secured additional political capital at home, rallying domestic support behind the regime as it faces mounting economic and political pressure from the United States and the United Nations to discontinue its nuclear program and end its military brinksmanship in the Strait of Hormuz. However, despite its bellicose rhetoric of defeating global hegemony, Iran is still searching for a strong ally in Latin America.
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