If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was displeased by the hostile reception he got during his trip to a United Nations summit in New York last week, the next stage of his journey surely lifted his spirits. He hopped on a plane to Caracas, where he was warmly greeted by Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president praised Ahmadinejad's performance at Columbia University, telling him: "An imperial spokesman tried to disrespect you, calling you a cruel little tyrant. You responded with the greatness of a revolutionary."
Ahmadinejad went on to Bolivia, whose president, Evo Morales, had just days earlier appeared on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," imploring the audience, "Please don't consider me part of the 'axis of evil.' " Back in Bolivia, however, Morales met with Ahmadinejad for five hours, signed a cooperation agreement worth $1 billion and established the first-ever diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Iran's strategy is clear. At loggerheads with the Bush administration over its nuclear program, the Iranian government is making an ambitious diplomatic effort to create new allies in Latin America, the traditional U.S. sphere of influence. With any success, Iran will lock in a few supporters in the U.N. and repair its international reputation by extending aid for development and anti-poverty programs.
What's worrisome is that the strategy appears to be working, at least in some countries. Latin America's willingness to embrace Iran indicates how far U.S. prestige has fallen in the region.
Chavez has emerged as the godfather and relationship manager, striving to draw in other allies such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. "When I come to Iran, Washington gets upset," Chavez noted during an official visit to Tehran last summer. (And surely nothing pleases him more.) At the end of those meetings, he and Ahmadinejad proclaimed an "axis of unity" and signed a series of economic deals involving dairy, oil and other sectors. That was, in fact, Chavez's third visit to Iran in the last two years, and direct flights from Caracas to Tehran are being established.
Iran's courtship is moving swiftly. Ahmadinejad has visited the region three times in the last year or so, starting with the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Havana in September 2006, followed by a meeting with Chavez in Caracas. In January 2007, Ahmadinejad was greeted as an honored guest in three Latin American counties. In Caracas, Chavez called him a "hero of the struggle against American imperialism." In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega met with him to discuss "common interests, common enemies and common goals." Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also exchanged warm words with the Iranian leader.
Chavez and Ahmadinejad see political benefits to their alliance. Iran is becoming increasingly isolated in the U.N. because of the ongoing dispute over its nuclear ambitions. But when the International Atomic Energy Agency put forth a resolution condemning Iran two years ago, Venezuela joined only Cuba and Syria in opposing it. The next year, Iran supported Venezuela's failed bid to win a seat on the Security Council.
But while their diplomatic relations have intensified, the economic foundation remains thin. The two leaders have signed agreements of mutual cooperation in such areas as gas and oil exploration and petrochemical and agricultural production -- 180 in all since 2001. Iran claims the deals are worth $20 billion, but their bilateral trade in the last fiscal year stood at only $16 million, according to the International Monetary Fund.
If that's any guide, Bolivia and Nicaragua may soon discover that Ahmadinejad has promised more than he can deliver. Bolivia is eagerly seeking assistance to tap its huge natural gas reserves, but Iran appears likely to provide only limited help. In poverty-stricken Nicaragua, whose president stridently defended Iran's nuclear ambitions at the U.N., Iran promised to finance a $350-million deep-water port and build 10,000 houses. Iran and Venezuela also recently announced a $2-billion development fund for "anti-imperialist" countries. But the money has been slow to arrive from Iran. Where is this "axis of unity" most effective? In OPEC, where the countries coordinate to keep the price of oil high, which harms poorer nations.
To be sure, Ahmadinejad remains an unwelcome figure in other parts of Latin America. Because of Iran's involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner skipped the inauguration of Ecuador's Correa to protest the presence of Ahmadinejad. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva rebuffed a request to meet with the Iranian president last week, citing scheduling conflicts. Important U.S. allies such as Colombia and Mexico also remain cool to Iran.
Still, Chavez is providing Iran an entree into Latin America, vowing to "unite the Persian Gulf and the Caribbean." The Venezuelan leader recently gave Iran observer status in his leftist trade-pact group known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Next month, Iran plans to open its first-ever embassy in Ecuador. Much to Washington's chagrin, Ahmadinejad is becoming a familiar face in Latin America.
Daniel P. Erikson is senior associate for U.S. policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.