Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to expand Tehran's influence in Latin America and deepen his alliance with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez on Wednesday in a visit that offered him a platform to defend his country's nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad's visit triggered small protests and was condemned by Chavez opponents and Venezuela's Jewish community. Students protested outside a Caracas hotel where Ahmadinejad was thought to be staying, and another group shouted "We don't want him, go away!" outside the Iranian Embassy.
Chavez and Ahmadinejad were to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss cooperation in energy, investments, trade and other areas. It was the final leg of the Iranian leader's three-country goodwill tour of Latin America, after stops in Brazil and Bolivia.
Chavez's enthusiastic embrace of Iran, which shares his hostility toward the U.S. and Israel, has made Venezuela a gateway for the Iranian government to make diplomatic inroads in Latin America.
Iran has helped Venezuela set up factories that assemble cars, tractors and bicycles, and Iranian businesses have sent crews to build public housing under contracts with Venezuela.
Both Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales have offered support for Iran's nuclear program, saying it is peaceful and not aimed at developing nuclear weapons as the U.S. and European nations fear.
Venezuela's opposition accused Chavez of developing a "dangerous alliance" by growing close to Ahmadinejad, citing concerns about the nuclear program and the Iranian president's record on women's rights, crackdowns on dissent and his denials of the Holocaust.
"We reject the presence of someone who would carry out a program of enriching uranium without being subject to international controls," leading opposition parties said in a statement issued Tuesday.
The Venezuelan Confederation of Israelite Associations also criticized the government's reception of Ahmadinejad. In a statement, it called the Iranian president an "ominous character" and expressed concern that his tour may help legitimize his government.
In Bolivia, Morales and Ahmadinejad signed a joint declaration supporting "the right of all nations to the use and development of nuclear energy for peaceful means" — a stance shared by Chavez, who has talked of starting a nuclear energy program.
Venezuela said last month that an aerial survey of its mineral deposits backed by Iran uncovered uranium deposits that could eventually be used for atomic energy.
Cushion against sanctions
Ahmadinejad has sought to court allies who agree with Iran in defending its nuclear program.
His visit to Latin America — especially the first stop in politically moderate Brazil — appeared designed to provide a new measure of international legitimacy as his nation refuses to back down on the nuclear issue.
It is Ahmadinejad's fourth visit to Venezuela, and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro says the countries have signed about 270 cooperation agreements in areas ranging from energy to scientific projects.
Venezuela and Iran, both major oil exporters and OPEC members, sealed an agreement in September during Chavez's last visit to Tehran for Venezuela to export 20,000 barrels of gasoline per day to Iran. That would give Iran a cushion if the West carries out threats of fuel sanctions over its nuclear program.
Chavez's close ties with Iran have drawn alarm in Washington and Israel as officials warn Iran could use the relationship to support weapons programs or terrorism.
U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said in a February Senate briefing that Venezuela "is serving as a bridge to help Iran build relations with other Latin American countries."