TEHRAN (AFP) – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Latin America Saturday seeking resounding support for Iran’s nuclear drive from fellow populist leaders who share his scornful defiance of the United States.
Slapped with sanctions by the UN Security Council over its atomic programme, the Islamic republic can count on diplomatic backing from the number of leftist leaders who have sprung to power in Latin America in the past few years.
On the four-day trip, Ahmadinejad will be calling on the presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua as well as meeting the president of Bolivia, all critics of Washington and proponents of left-wing economic policies.
The number one ally among these is Chavez, a former paratrooper who has vowed to create a socialist system in his country and has become a prominent cheerleader of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policies.
Venezuela was alone in opposing a September resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that found Iran in violation of nuclear safeguards and has since backed Iran’s right to enrich uranium to the hilt.
“Hugo is my brother,” Ahmadinejad said during his last visit to Venezuela in September, during which the two men inaugurated a major new joint oil well. “Hugo is the champion of the fight against imperialism.”
“Venezuela and Iran have demonstrated that together, out of the reach of hegemony and American imperialism, they can work and improve,” Ahmadinejad also said.
Iran is OPEC’s fourth largest producer while Venezuela is also a major player in the cartel and is hoping that its Orinoco oil belt could make it one of the very top producers worldwide.
Besides cementing political ties, the two countries have agreed to establish a joint company named IranVenzOil in the near future for oil exploration and development.
“President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will leave Tehran on Friday evening for a trip to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador,” the Kayhan newspaper quoted a presidential statement as saying.
“Ahmadinejad will start his visit with a trip to Venezuela to hold official talks with his counterpart President Hugo Chavez”.
Russia and China joined other permanent UN Security Council members in voting unanimously in favour of sanctioning Iran for its failure to suspend enrichment, making it doubly important for Tehran to cultivate other allies.
Venezuela and several other Latin American countries are members of the Non-Aligned Movement that at a summit last year emphatically backed Iran’s right to nuclear energy.
After his one day visit to Caracas, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to head to Managua to hold talks with Nicaraguan president elect and former US foe Daniel Ortega who is due to be sworn-in on Wednesday.
Ortega was the former Marxist leader of the leftist front that ousted a US-backed dictator in 1979 and seized private assets, distributed land to poor farmers and battled US-financed Contra rebels throughout the 1980s.
The Iranian president will on Monday take part in the swearing-in ceremony of the Ecuador’s new president Rafael Correa, who won his country’s presidential election last November, the statement said.
Correa has vowed to seek stronger ties with Venezuela, oppose a free-trade deal with the United States, and not renew the lease for a US military air base on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast.
He has also said that Ecuador, which sends most of its 540,000 barrels of crude production a day to the United States, would rejoin the OPEC oil cartel it left in December 1992.
Ahmadinejad will also hold meetings with other South American presidents including Bolivia’s Evo Morales on the sidelines of the swearing-in ceremony, before wrapping up his tour on Tuesday.