Reporting from Bogota, Colombia Borzou Daragahi, and Beirut -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives today in Brazil on a Latin American and African tour amid U.S. and domestic criticism that, by playing host, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is squandering his newfound global influence.
The first visit to Brazil by an Iranian head of state has generated two protests in the last week in which thousands of demonstrators, many of them Jews alarmed by Ahmadinejad's views on the Holocaust and on Israel, took to the streets and beaches of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Protests in May forced Ahmadinejad to cancel a scheduled visit.
The controversial Iranian leader, who is also visiting Venezuela, Bolivia, Gambia and Senegal, said Sunday upon boarding a plane in Tehran that he hopes to help spearhead a new global order in cooperation with Latin America and Africa.
"These countries are important and each has a determining role in their region or continent," Ahmadinejad said before leaving for his first stop in Banjul, capital of the tiny West African Muslim nation of Gambia.
"New orders should be established in the world," he said, according to state television. "Iran, Brazil and Venezuela in particular can have determining roles in designing and establishing these new orders."
In Brazil, Ahmadinejad and Lula are expected to sign cooperation agreements in biotechnology, energy and agriculture. An Iranian deputy foreign minister told the official Brazilian news agency last month that Tehran hopes to expand trade with Brazil to $15 billion from $2 billion in the petrochemical, energy, agricultural and medical fields.
About 200 Iranian businessmen are traveling with Ahmadinejad, who is scheduled to address the Brazilian Congress and speak to students in Brasilia.
Venezuela's ambassador to Tehran announced this month that new uranium deposits had been discovered in Venezuela and that his country and Iran "are now cooperating on a research and development project," the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
"At this juncture, Iran and Venezuela have no nuclear cooperation," said David Velasquez Caraballo, the envoy. "But in the future, such cooperation might be established."
Ahmadinejad, weakened by a domestic opposition movement that accuses him of stealing Iran's June 12 presidential election, is searching for new economic opportunities, with stiff sanctions and economic restrictions threatened by the West if negotiations on Tehran's nuclear development program fail.
The U.S. government and many Western analysts are concerned that Brazil's reception of Ahmadinejad could signal implicit approval of Iran's resistance to international pressure to abandon its nuclear enrichment efforts. Iran says the program is for peaceful uses, but Western nations believe its goal is to develop a nuclear weapon.
During a State Department briefing last week, spokesman Ian Kelly said the U.S. hoped that Lula would use the meetings to "stress the importance of Iran living up to its international obligations" and agreeing to a U.S. proposal that Iran enrich uranium in another country.
Harvard history professor Kenneth Maxwell said that kind of mediation by Lula is unlikely. Although Lula is framing the visit as "ratification of Brazil's enhanced role in the world," the reality is that it "places Brazil between a rock and a hard place," Maxwell said, and possibly hampers international efforts to bring Iran to account.
"Ahmadinejad is not just any other world leader. Iran is currently in the middle of a major dispute with the U.S. and its allies. Ahmadinejad vociferously denies the Holocaust and calls publicly for the destruction of Israel," Maxwell said.
U.S. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), who chairs a House subcommittee on Latin America, told the BBC last week that Brazil's invitation was "a serious mistake."
Strengthened by its growing economy, natural resource riches and Lula's prestige, Brazil is gaining a higher diplomatic profile. Last month, Rio de Janeiro won designation as host of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games after a Lula-led lobbying campaign involving dozens of Third World countries on the Olympic voting committee.
The Ahmadinejad visit, along with Lula's defense of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his claim that President Obama has ignored Latin America, may have thrown cold water on Obama's plan to use Lula as a proxy in Latin America policy, said Eric Farnsworth, a former Clinton administration official who is vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington.
"The Ahmadinejad visit is cause to question the ends to which Brazil might seek to use its burgeoning global profile," Farnsworth said. "It should also give pause to those who recommend that the U.S. and Brazil attempt to manage the hemisphere together. Simply put, our views of the world are different and it's not at all clear that strategic partnership is the endgame."
Harvard economist Aldo Musacchio said Brazil has strong business incentives for strengthening ties with Iran, where Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras is active.
"Is it worth adding Iran as a market and eroding Brazil's public image by supporting Ahmadinejad's nuclear policy? I don't think so," he said.
In addition to seeking new economic opportunities, Ahmadinejad has been trying to hobnob with foreign dignitaries in an effort to bolster his credibility and legitimacy.
In September, representatives of many countries walked out of the salon when he delivered a speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
Kraul is a special correspondent.
Special correspondent Marcelo Soares in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.