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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As we just heard, Iran has been isolated by the West over concern that it's developing a nuclear weapons program. So, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hoping to pick up some much-needed diplomatic support, with a visit to close allies in the Americas. Today, he's in Venezuela with President Hugo Chavez, who has accused the U.S. of trying to dominate the world. And from there: Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador, all sharply critical of U.S. foreign policy.

NPR's Juan Forero has that story.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: On his TV show, "Hello Mr. President," President Hugo Chavez attacks the Obama administration, saying it's trying to stop Iran from rightfully becoming a medium-sized power.

CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He says those efforts by the empire, as he calls the U.S., are laughable.

CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: The U.S. is desperate, Chavez explains. He then has a message for President Obama: Focus on your own problems back home.

It was just the kind of message Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to Latin America to hear. Washington has slapped sanctions on Tehran, causing Iran's currency to tumble. And Europe is moving toward tightening the noose, part of a broad effort to cripple Iran's nuclear program.

Cynthia Arnson, at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center, says Ahmadinejad's arrival here permits Iran to claim it still has friends.

DR. CYNTHIA ARNSON: And it's particularly useful to have allies in Latin America, which has traditionally been considered the United States' backyard. So it's a really important way of thumbing its nose at Washington and making common political cause with governments in the region, who also share an anti-imperialist and anti-U.S. ideology.

FORERO: Under Ahmadinejad, Tehran has moved energetically to build ties in the region. The Iranians have signed dozens of economic agreements with a number of countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Today, on Venezuelan state television, a report touts a joint project with the Iranians that provided 2,500 poor families with homes.

But other projects promised by Tehran for the region - particularly dams and ports, refineries and hospitals - never materialized, says Arnson.

ARNSON: Some of these have gone forward, particularly in Venezuela. But I think there's a huge difference between the signing of the agreement and what is actually implemented or turned into something real.

FORERO: And Tehran has only received diplomatic support from a small group of small countries that are ideologically opposed to Washington, but wield limited influence.

Analysts say it's notable that the Iranian leader is not visiting Brazil or Mexico – countries with big, diverse economies and governments that carry international weight.

Still, the State Department says it's tracking Iran's role here. And spokeswoman Victoria Nuland recently told reporters the U.S. wants to discourage countries from dealing with Iran.

VICTORIA NULAND: We are making absolutely clear to countries around the world that now is not the time to be deepening ties, not security ties, not economic ties with Iran.

FORERO: Stephen Johnson is a former U.S. Defense Department assistant secretary for the region. He says that Washington is particularly focused on making sure Iran is not finding ways to circumvent sanctions. And the problem, he says, is that many of Iran's activities in the region are not transparent, particularly in Venezuela.

DR. STEPHEN JOHNSON: There are joint ventures in which members of the Iranian Guards that are taking part. Companies such as the tractor company and the car company have links to the Iranian Guards. So there are possibilities for exchanges there.

FORERO: For now, though, the U.S. is simply watching as Ahmadinejad gets the red carpet treatment in the region.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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