STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On a Monday morning it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
President Bush spoke so strongly against Iran last week that his spokesman had to deny questions about an imminent attack. Vice President Cheney added to that criticism yesterday on Fox News.
(Soundbite of Fox News broadcast)
Vice President DICK CHENEY: Iran's a problem in a much larger sense. They have begun to conduct themselves in ways that have created a great deal of tension throughout the region.
INSKEEP: He meant the Persian Gulf region, of course. But even as the vice president spoke, Iran's leader was making headlines in a different region - Latin America. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in this hemisphere. He's visiting countries with newly inaugurated leftist leaders.
Yesterday, he conferred in Managua with Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega. And later today he is to attend the swearing in of the new president of Ecuador.
We're going to go now to NPR's South America correspondent Julie McCarthy. And Julie, why reach out to Latin America?
JULIE MCCARTHY: Good morning, Steve. Well, between Ahmadinejad anti-Israel rhetoric and his controversial pursuit of a nuclear power program, he's isolated Iran in the world. And Iran now faces limited U.S. sanctions for refusing to stop uranium enrichment, and many in Iran are not happy with this isolation.
And Ahmadinejad appears keen to show that he has backing that counters this isolationism. And there seems to be a few more audacious ways to do that than in the backyard of the United States, his bitter enemy.
INSKEEP: So he's reaching out to countries that have been critical of or hostile to the United States?
MCCARTHY: Well, that's right. The Iranian leader is touring three countries that are ideologically united on the left and where distrust of the Bush administration is high. President Hugo Chavez, the standard bearer of anti-Bush administration in the region, warmly greeted the Iranian leader in Venezuela Saturday.
And whereas the United States expects that Tehran is using its nuclear power program to build nuclear weapons, President Chavez insists, no, Iran wants to use nuclear technology to generate electricity. So he's become a strong ally of the Iranian president and he called Ahmadinejad a fighter for a just cause, a revolutionary and a brother.
Ahmadinejad then flew to Nicaragua to meet Daniel Ortega, who was just inaugurated as president there. They pledged to open new embassies in each other's capitals. And the final leg of the swing, as you just mentioned, is Ecuador for the inauguration today of a U.S.-educated economist, Rafael Correa, he, too, a tough critic of U.S. foreign policy. And his election is the latest sign of the resurgence of the left in South America, which Iran's president is on hand to mark.
INSKEEP: Julie, should Americans be concerned at all that Iran, which is a major oil producer of course, is making friends with Venezuela, which is a major oil producer that supplies the United States?
MCCARTHY: Well, you know, in fact Venezuela and Iran declared this weekend that the world oil market was oversupplied and agreed that OPEC should cut production in order to prop up the price of oil. So of course the United States is very keen in listening to what's happening there.
Ecuador's new president is talking about rejoining OPEC. Oil is Ecuador's major export. In Ecuador, Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, will meet the Iranian leader. Morales this year wrested greater state control over his country's huge gas reserves. So in one respect this is an alliance among an emerging club of energy producers.
INSKEEP: And very briefly, anything really concrete likely to come out of Ahmadinejad's tour?
MCCARTHY: Well, Iran and Venezuela pledged $2 billion to finance projects in the developing world. Ahmadinejad lashed out at the United States, saying it was to blame for the injustice and poverty in the developing world. Chavez called it a liberation fund that would allow countries to shake off what he called the yolk of U.S. imperialism.
Chavez has reported to have said death to U.S. imperialism but it got interpreted in Farsi as death to America which, according to reports, had the Iranian delegation breaking into applause.
But the frustration of leftist leaders in Latin America with Washington has given Iran an opening here to expand its influence.
INSKEEP: Julie, thanks very much.
MCCARTHY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's South America correspondent Julie McCarthy. She spoke to us today from Bolivia where she's tracking the travels of Iran's president.
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