Ahmadinejad Makes Friends in Latin America NPR Foreign Correspondent Julie McCarthy talks about the significance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tour of Latin American countries.
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Ahmadinejad Makes Friends in Latin America

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Ahmadinejad Makes Friends in Latin America

Ahmadinejad Makes Friends in Latin America

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wraps up his tour of Latin America this week. He promised closer relationships with some of the newly elected leftist leaders in Central and South America, and the line-up read like a who's who of political opposition to U.S. policy in the region.

Ahmadinejad attended the swearing in ceremonies for Ecuador's Rafael Correa and met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega and Bolivia's Evo Morales were also on the itinerary.

If you have questions about the significance of Mr. Ahmadinejad's travels in Latin America, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us now from Bolivia. Julie, nice to speak with you again.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Thank you, Neal. You too.

CONAN: And what does President Ahmadinejad hope to achieve from these travels?

Ms. MCCARTHY: Well, I think he's here to try to find a common cause with, as you pointed out, the leftist leaders of Latin America who do speak in terms of what they call U.S. imperialism. It's not quite the great Satan but it's all part of that lexicon. And so he finds common ground in this hostility towards the foreign policies of the Bush administration and what is also lightly regarded in this region as an ill-advised war in Iraq.

There's also here this overall disdain for economic policies that Washington has promoted, especially here in Latin America. And Iran's president was on hand, as you said, to hear the new Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, a U.S.-trained economist, yesterday talk about the need for a profound transformation in the region. His focus was on debt repayment. He said we'll help the poor first and then worry about paying the foreign debt later. And again he used the term empire to refer the United States in a speech at an indigenous ceremony the day before.

So the Iranian leader's trip is part of this common cause, part of this sentiment that that people are rallying around where the United States seems to be the center of resentment.

CONAN: And as you're saying, the sort of anti-imperial rhetoric certainly would echo with a lot of the things that the Iranian president has been saying. But in terms of absolute politics, the Iranian revolution would not be described by most people as leftist.

Ms. MCCARTHY: Well, that's right. What you have here, I mean in addition to sort of the fuming of the nose I think at the United States, is his march about domestic politics. It's one the reasons I think you could say he came here. He's got serious problems at home. And his candidates took a thumping in elections to local councils last month. The majority of his parliament is now criticizing government spending. And so this trip, while he can find sort of common ground with leaders here, this resurgence of the left who are aligning against the United States, he's also here to shore up a base at home.

United States has imposed sanctions on Iran, and that's not calmed down well at home. Many Iranians don't want to be isolated in the world, and they blame Ahmadinejad and his inflammatory style. And of course his (unintelligible) pronouncements condemning Israel have alienated Iran as well. So he's demonstrating by this tour that, while he may not be a socialist, he's making friends. He's making allies, and he can argue that Iran's not as isolated as it seems. And what better way to make the points than to say and I've got those friends on the doorstep of the United States. I'm expanding Iran's influence in Washington's backyard.

CONAN: And of course there is oil politics to talk about, especially in Venezuela.

Ms. MCCARTHY: Well, that's right. What interesting to note is that what most of the Latin American countries he visited have in common is their energy wealth. This could be seen as an alliance of kind of emerging energy producers. Venezuela, of course, has the biggest reserves in Latin America. I know there's a dispute over its pecking order in OPEC. And of course of all the Latin countries that Ahmadinejad visited, his closest relationship is with Venezuela.

That's because of the long-standing relationship in OPEC. They were both founding members, Iran and Venezuela. And of course Bolivia has huge gas reserves which now fall under greater state control, as you pointed out. Bolivia's Evo Morales was meeting with Ahmadinejad. And in Ecuador, which is in the throes of renegotiating its oil agreements with foreign firms, you've got the president there talking about rejoining OPEC. They had withdrew - they withdrew in 1992.

So you have very much - it would seem that the politics of oil is also very much a part of this budding alliance.

CONAN: And how has President Ahmadinejad been received on this tour?

MCCARTHY: Well, he's been received very well. But, you know, interestingly, particularly in Venezuela, in the lead-up to his visit there wasn't much talked about in the press in Venezuela. But of course when he arrived, it was carried live on national television.

When he went to Managua to see Daniel Ortega - Daniel Ortega clearly is trying to walk a fine line. He's not in the business here, you know, a couple decades later of wanting to alienate the United States so much. But by the same token, you've got him at least reaching out to Ahmadinejad, inviting him to his country. They toured barrios together. And of course when he went off to Ecuador's inauguration of its new president, Rafael Correa, everyone was there.

So it was very much on a state level. I mean there was not - apart from Managua, I think there was not a lot of sort of plunging into crowds and greeting people.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a listener involved in the conversation. 800-989-8255, and this is Dan(ph). Dan's calling us from San Carlos in California.

DAN (Caller): Yeah, hi. I think your guest might have addressed this already, but I thought it was just interesting. Nothing about Ahmadinejad and what I've heard about him in the news makes me think of the word leftist, and he seems to be hanging out with these socialist governments in Latin America. I just think that's an interesting and odd combination.

CONAN: Well Julie McCarthy, it does - reminiscent of earlier combinations of countries not necessarily aligned politically but with greater interests at heart back in the days when there were two superpowers and there was a third-world alignment.

MCCARTHY: Well that's right. I think what we're seeing here is a desire - you know, apart from the domestic concern he has to sort of reach out, you know, there is a sort of political realignment that's been going on for quite some time. And for Iran to be reaching to, you know, the Western Hemisphere, to be reaching into the backyard of the United States, is quite remarkable in and of itself.

Having said that, you know, the United States' law looks at several things here that concern it, and that is what Venezuela and Iran could do together in OPEC. They've already talked about cutting oil production, you know, a scarcer commodity is going to make a more expensive one. So by cutting production, they would sustain higher oil prices.

You know, few things are more important to the American economy than the availability and price of oil, and you also have this underlying issue of nuclear technology. You've got the United States worried about any possible exchange of nuclear technology between Iran and Venezuela.

Chavez calls the Iranian leader a fighter for a just cause. Well, what does he mean? He's insisting that Iran's disputed nuclear power program is for civilian purposes like electricity. The United States suspects it's for something else like nuclear weapons. And Venezuela's also expressed interest in acquiring a small reactor for energy purposes. So, you know, any exchange of nuclear technology would concern the United States.

Having said that, so far Iran and Venezuela, for all of the concerns that may be raised, are jointly building what - bicycles and tractors right now.

CONAN: It should be pointed out Iran was among the backers of Venezuela when it was hoping to get a seat on the United Nations Security Council, which it ultimately did not get after several - I lost track of how many votes there were in the Security Council, but eventually, Venezuela was not successful.

I wonder, Julie, have any of the presidents with whom Mr. Ahmadinejad has met, have any of them said that they would like to come back and reciprocate this and tour Tehran?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MCCARTHY: Well, I would suspect that you might see those invitations being extended. Who would take him up on that is still, I think, an open question. Certainly, Mr. Chavez has visited Iran in what was a very volatile visit last summer when he conducted a news conference, a joint news conference with Ahmadinejad.

And there he sort of made his case very clearly for why he supported Iran's ambitions for a nuclear power program. Again, he said this is for civilian purposes. But he's also there to poke the eye of the United States, to make it clear that he can show up other places.

Chavez, more so perhaps than the other leaders, does see himself on a global stage, and he could be expected to pop up in Tehran, the others perhaps less so. The problems at home are huge here for these newly elected leftist leaders.

CONAN: And Julie, we should also point out that it's not all one way. As President Ahmadinejad was touring capitals in Latin America, a team of American wrestlers arrived today in Bandar Abbes in Iran, wearing blazers emblazoned with USA wrestling, were greeted at the airport at that southern city by local officials and young girls in traditional Iranian dresses, what's being described as a warm welcome for the American wrestlers. So there's more than one thing going on at any one time.

Julie McCarthy, thanks very much for being with us today.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR's Julie McCarthy joining us on the line from Bolivia. Coming up next, your letters. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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