Buenos Aires (CNSNews.com) - Fresh from his headline-grabbing visit to New York, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Thursday began a short trip to Latin America to shore up ties with two of the region's most anti-American regimes.
The Iranian leader first stopped briefly in Bolivia, whose leftist President Evo Morales -- a close ally of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez -- recently re-established diplomatic relations with Tehran.
Ahmadinejad then headed for Caracas for a meeting with Chavez, who is using his country's oil wealth to expand his influence in the region and promote his vision of "21st century socialism."
At last year's U.N. General Assembly session, Chavez dominated the media coverage with his characterization of President Bush as "the devil." This year Chavez stayed away, and it was Ahmadinejad's presence in New York that got the headlines.
"It is possible that Chavez may have wanted to leave the spotlight for Ahmadinejad [by skipping the meeting this year]," Adolfo Salgueiro, head of the International Law faculty at Caracas' Andres Bello Catholic University, told Cybercast News Service .
"[Ahmadinejad] stole the show not only in the U.N, but also at Columbia University, and by not being able to visit [the former World Trade Center's] Ground Zero. His image is not positive, but he placed himself in the eye of the hurricane," Salgueiro noted.
(Largely overshadowed by the Iranian's visit, the U.N. session also saw criticism aimed at Washington by Latin American leftists, sparked in part by Bush's remark during his U.N. speech that "in Cuba, the long rule of a cruel dictatorship is nearing its end."
Cuba's delegate walked out in protest, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega accused Bush of a "total lack of respect" towards Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Morales, burnishing his own anti-U.S. image, said Castro sends troops to other countries "to save lives, unlike the president of the United States who sends troops to end lives.")
Ahmadinejad has visited Venezuela three times since taking office in mid-2005, while Chavez has visited Iran three times since 1999. Salgueiro said anti-American sentiment is a significant factor in the alliance.
Iran is under U.N. sanctions for its uranium-enrichment activities, which the U.S. and Europe suspects are a front for developing a nuclear weapons capability.
Chavez has repeatedly defended Iran's right to develop a nuclear energy program, and Salgueiro noted that the Venezuelan leader has also hinted at the possibility of joint nuclear-related activities with Iran.
"It won't be long until Venezuela announces nuclear plans," Salgueiro predicted.
In an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica last week, Chavez said Venezuela's ties with Iran were aimed at developing oil and gas extraction in the South American country, but scoffed that those hostile to Iran and Venezuela "will say it is about the nuclear bomb, that we are plotting with Iran to threaten the world."
Ahmadinejad's visit to Venezuela has upset Jewish groups in the country, which noted his "continuous and constant threats" against Israel and "cynical and irrational statements denying the Holocaust."
Chill over terrorism charges
Meanwhile, Iran's relations with one Latin American country are under strain.
Argentina's center-left President Nestor Kirchner may be a critic of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, but he is also openly confronting Iran over the alleged involvement of top Iranian officials in two terrorist bombings in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s.
An Iranian envoy last week warned Kirchner against bringing up the matter in the General Assembly, in turn drawing criticism from the Argentine government.
In his speech in New York this week, Kirchner did raise the issue, saying that "Iran has not cooperated as required by the Argentine Justice Department to solve the events [related to the bombings]."
Prosecutors here in 2006 formally accused Iran and its proxy terrorist group in Lebanon, Hizballah, of involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Mutual Aid Jewish Organization (AMIA) community center. They asked Iran to extradite former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and other senior officials, but Iran has refused to do so.
AMIA vice-chairman Jose Adaszko praised Kirchner's remarks in New York, saying they had been "very important."
Adaszko told the AJN Jewish news agency that the president's comments could have an impact on a meeting in November of the policing organization INTERPOL, which is set to decide on what to do about the indictments of Rafsanjani and six others - five Iranians and a Lebanese.
In Iran's response to Kirchner's speech, foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini said the Argentine president has made the comment due to "his country's approaching elections and under the pressures of the Zionists."
A total of 114 people were killed and hundreds were hurt in the 1994 bombing and another attack two years earlier, at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires.
(CNSNews International Editor Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)
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