updated 9/27/2007 4:48:29 PM ET 2007-09-27T20:48:29

Vilified by world leaders wary of his nuclear ambitions, Iran’s president arrived in Bolivia on Thursday to strengthen ties with South American leftists who are embracing him as an energy and trade partner and counterweight to U.S. influence.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in the Amazon region city of Santa Cruz, then shifted to a Venezuelan government jet and flew to the capital of La Paz to establish first-time diplomatic relations with the Andean nation.

The visit comes on the heels of a U.N. General Assembly appearance in which Ahmadinejad said Iran will ignore demands by “arrogant powers” to curb its nuclear program.

Morales, a strident leftist, joins Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as one of Iran’s allies. He called the visit a historic event, saying the two nations “will work together from this day on, for our people, for life and for humanity.”

Ahmadinejad called Morales his “dear brother” and said his trip will be “the start of deep relations between both governments.”

Ahmadinejad and Morales were expected to sign accords that Bolivian officials say could help them better tap the continent’s second-largest natural gas reserves after Venezuela’s and drum up urgently needed agricultural investment.

Ahmadinejad then heads to Caracas to meet Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who has defended Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes.

Strengthening relations
Ahmadinejad’s trip south underscores his strengthening links to Latin American nations that also include Nicaragua and Ecuador even as the United States tries to isolate him internationally.

“It’s a connection that is growing stronger all the time,” said Alberto Garrido, a Venezuelan writer and political analyst. “It’s Iran’s answer to the United States on its own home turf. The United States is in the Middle East, so Iran is in Latin America.”

Energy experts doubt the new Bolivia-Iran alliance will let Morales deliver on his promise of using gas profits to ease grinding poverty in South America’s poorest nation. But by opening diplomatic ties, Iran and Morales’ “anti-imperialist” administration appear to be on the same political page.

The growing closeness between Iran and Chavez-allied governments is viewed with alarm by the opposition in Venezuela and Bolivia, and by Washington, which calls Iran a sponsor of terrorism.

The move reminds Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., “of the relationship that Fidel Castro had with Russia.”

“Ahmadinejad recognizes that if he can get a foothold in Latin America, he can continue to spread his hatred for the United States,” Mack said, adding that it is now imperative for Washington to reach out more to a region analysts say it largely ignored post-Sept. 11, 2001.

“You don’t want to have your enemy at your backdoor,” Mack said.

U.S. hope to counter Chavez aid
Chavez has promised more than $8.8 billion in aid, financing and energy funding to Latin America and the Caribbean this year, prompting a group of U.S. senators and congressmen to back a bipartisan aid plan to counter Chavez.

The bill being introduced Thursday would establish a 10-year, $2.5 billion program aimed at reducing poverty. It would require recipient countries to contribute and encourages matching funds from businesses and non-governmental organizations.

While Morales’ opponents say the stronger ties could threaten regional security, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia says his government doesn’t endorse nuclear proliferation and the two nations simply want to build commercial ties.

Bolivia is forging “diplomatic relations with Iran to improve the country’s economic situation, not to hurt or offend anyone,” Garcia said while Morales was in New York this week at the U.N.

Bolivian and Iranian officials declined to offer details on what sort of energy agreements are in the works, but analysts say Iran alone can’t give Bolivia the massive investment it needs to boost gas output in the face of potential domestic shortages and looming commitments to its big clients, Argentina and Brazil.

“I think the fact that Morales is talking to the Iranians is a sign of desperation,” said Christopher Garman, who heads Latin American research at the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy. “Bolivia is not going to have a white horse saving its energy needs.”

But Bolivia-Iran trade can hardly go anywhere but up.

Bolivia exported nothing to Iran between 2000 and 2006, and Iranian exports to Bolivia totaled only $10 million last year, according to government statistics, down from $24 million a year earlier.

Venezuela, Iran are trade partners
Meanwhile, ties between Caracas and Tehran are strong and growing. Iran and Venezuela have signed more than 180 trade agreements since 2001, worth more than $20 billion in potential investment between the two, according to Iran’s official news agency, IRNA.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also wants closer ties with Tehran, and Iran’s PressTV reported last month that Iran will for the first time open an embassy in Quito.

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua last month accepted promised Iranian aid of funding for 4,000 tractors, milk-processing plants, 10,000 houses, piers and the construction of a farm equipment assembly plant. In exchange, Nicaragua agreed to export coffee, meat and bananas to Iran.

Chavez is a vocal defender of Iran’s nuclear program, accusing the United States of trumping up unfounded concerns about possible nuclear weapons as a pretext to attack a regime it opposes.

“Iran isn’t making an atomic bomb, not at all,” Chavez said Monday. “They just want to develop nuclear energy. Venezuela will do it also someday.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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