Envoy from Iran makings rounds with Latin friends

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A top Iranian diplomat is making the rounds of friendly countries in Latin America in what U.S. observers believe is another effort to establish more influence in the area and solidify supply lines.

The diplomat is Ali Asghar Khaji, the deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs. His trip was announced by the Fars News Agency in Iran, which said he would visit Bolivia, Cuba, and Uruguay.

The deputy foreign minister was in Bolivia last week. He met with Bolivian President Evo Morales and held a press conference Friday. Among other comments, the Iranian said that aid from his country to Bolivia was more than $1.2 billion since relations were established in 2007.

The Iranian diplomat also said that there would be additional contacts by experts from his country with the goal of training Bolivian law enforcement officers in anti-drug strategies.

The visit comes while an Iranian proxy, the Hamas terrorist group, celebrates 25 years of existence in the Gaza Strip. The deputy foreign minister is believed to be counting on friendly Latin countries to counter the trade blockades that many nations have placed on Iran due to its nuclear program. So the visit is wrapped up in Mideast politics, too.

The Iranian news service noted that Bolivia and Cuba are members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, known as ALBA. This is a union of eight Latin American states that has been stitched together by Venezuela President Hugo Chávez to counter U.S. influence in the area.

The influential Middle East Quarterly said that Iran is believed to be extracting uranium from 11 different sites in Bolivia. Most First World nations are trying to prevent Iran from successfully building an atomic bomb because such a weapon probably would be used against Israel with major world consequences. The main theme of the Hamas celebrations in the Gaza Strip is the elimination of Israel.

Hamas political chief Khaled Meshel said in a speech that Israel is not legitimate. The celebration came after Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israel and the Israelis retaliated with bombs. Some 15 persons died in Gaza, and so did eight Israelis, according to BBC news service reports. The Israelis say the rockets were smuggled in from Iran.

U.S. officials have long expressed concern that Iran was developing bases in Latin America for eventual attacks on U.S. soil.

The Middle East Quarterly noted that U.S. officials attribute to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps the unsuccessful plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington with the use of gunmen from the Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel.

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has visited Latin America, including Nicaragua. That was the country where rumors surfaced in September that another Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, was setting up a training camp. That report came from Israeli news media and was never validated.

Nevertheless, the U. S. House of Representatives  passed unanimously a resolution demanding that the U.S. government thwart Iran’s attempts to establish relationships with countries in the Western Hemisphere. In House debate, U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat from New York, said that Hezbollah has 80 operatives in Latin America and is active in 15 American cities.

In the bill, numerous countries are named as having publicly expressed a willingness to help Iran evade economic sanctions, including Nicaragua and Venezuela.

In La Paz, the Iranian deputy foreign minster noted that visits by officials from his country generate criticism in the United States. He characterized his visit as one of peace and friendship.

Iran may be about to suffer a setback because Venezuelan President Chávez, the strongest Latin supporter, is back in Cuba for another cancer operation. Iran is reported to have some $20 billion in annual trade with Venezuela that might be jeopardized with a change in the leadership. If Chávez is unable to serve, a new presidential election could be called within 30 days.

Before leaving to Cuba for his operation, Chávez designated Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his successor, but Maduro has no where near the charisma as Chávez, and he is not as strong an election candidate.

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