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South America embraces Ahmadinejad
· Ahmadinejad signs energy deals during regional tour
· Venezuela and Bolivia back Iran's nuclear plans
The Guardian reported:
Red carpets, brass bands, bear hugs and a hero's welcome: there is at least one part of the Americas that loves Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
South America this week greeted the Iranian president as a brother and benefactor, defrosting him after his icy reception in New York. The leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela embraced Mr Ahmadinejad and blessed Iran's nuclear programme, underlining how much influence Washington has lost over a region it once considered its backyard.
The Iranian president signed a series of energy and trade deals during brief stopovers which extended Tehran's foothold in South America. In contrast to the insults heaped on him in New York, the visitor was feted as a strategic ally in the struggle against gringo imperialism. Cuba and Nicaragua echoed the rhetoric.
Mr Ahmadinejad was received late on Thursday by Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, in a pomp-filled ceremony in Caracas. Mr Chávez, who is using oil revenues to challenge US influence, saluted "one of the greatest anti-imperialist fighters".
He praised Mr Ahmadinejad's speeches this week at the UN general assembly and at Columbia University, New York, where he faced hostility from students and the university president. "An imperial spokesman tried to disrespect you, calling you a cruel little tyrant," said Mr Chávez. "You responded with the greatness of a revolutionary. We felt like you were our representative."
The Iranian, appearing cheerful and relaxed, responded in kind. "Together we are surely growing stronger, and in truth no one can defeat us. Imperialism has no other option: Respect the peoples [of the world] or accept defeat."
This was his third visit to Venezuela. In recent years the countries have launched joint projects worth more than £10bn to develop oil and make tractors, cars and bicycles. Mr Ahmadinejad's Islamism and questioning of the Holocaust and gay rights have not impeded an alliance which says that if anyone should be in the dock for human rights abuses it is the US for the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.
The west suspects Tehran of plotting to make atomic bombs, but to the Bush administration's chagrin several Latin American leaders defended the regime's nuclear programme as a legitimate attempt to make electricity, including Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has good relations with the US.
Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, a long-time Washington foe who recently visited Iran, went further in his UN address. "Even if they want nuclear power for purposes that are not peaceful, with what right does [the US] question it?"
Before going to Caracas Mr Ahmadinejad visited La Paz on a Venezuelan government jet to establish diplomatic relations with Bolivia's leftwing president, Evo Morales. The two governments agreed to a five-year industrial cooperation plan with a £500m investment as well as a £50m plan to jointly develop technology and trade. "The people of Iran and Bolivia have decided to build their countries together, hand in hand," said Mr Ahmadinejad.
Without naming the US, Mr Morales said the Andean nation would not be bullied into shunning supposedly rogue states. "We will never promote war but nor do we accept that in the name of peace the criteria of the strongest prevails."
Some analysts play down Iran's economic links with Latin American as more rhetoric than substance. But when US diplomats discuss the issue it is striking how their jaws tend to clench.
A US Republican congressman, Connie Mack, said the links reminded him of Fidel Castro's relationship with the Soviet Union. "You don't want to have your enemy at your backdoor."
Rory Carroll in Caracas
Saturday September 29 2007
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