Bogota, Jan. 10, 2012 (TSR) – Amid escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf and a growing diplomatic squabble in the Americas, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a red carpet welcome in Venezuela Monday as he kicked off a four-nation Latin American tour that is raising concerns in Washington, D.C.
Ahmadinejad’s visit, which will also take him to Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador, comes a day after the U.S. Department of State confirmed that Venezuela’s consul in Miami was asked to leave the country amid reports that she took part in a 2008 discussion about a potential cyber-attack against the United States.
It also comes the same day Iran was accused of stepping up its efforts to enrich uranium, and Iran’s courts announced a former U.S. Marine was condemned to death on spying charges.
Calling Ahmadinejad his “real brother,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said the two nations had to stand together against the United States and her allies.
“We didn’t ask for this task, but it’s our duty to stop the crazed imperialism that is stronger than ever before,” he said. “It’s a danger to the world — these pretensions of the Yankee Empire to control the globe.”
The escalating rhetoric came as the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had started enriching uranium at a new fortified bunker. Iran claims its nuclear program is peaceful, but the international community is increasingly concerned about its military ambitions and has been ratcheting up economic sanctions.
Ahmadinejad said his nation was prepared for “martyrdom” but that it had no bellicose intentions.
“We love everyone,” he said, on the steps of the presidential palace, “including the people of the United States who are suffering under the domination of the arrogant.”
Chávez said the U.S. and its “lackeys” were trying to paint Iran and Venezuela as the aggressors.
“Who has dropped thousands and thousands of bombs on innocent civilians — including some atomic bombs? Who has promoted coups, massacres and genocide?” Chávez asked. “Not us. We are among the countries that have been victims.”
The two leaders were scheduled to discuss ongoing bilateral projects, and the state-run Agencia Venezolana de Noticias said they would sign new accords covering tourism, science and technology, energy, and the automotive industry. On Tuesday they are scheduled to be in Nicaragua for the swearing-in ceremony of President Daniel Ortega — a staunch Chávez ally.
Ahmadinejad’s visit comes amid the backdrop of growing diplomatic spat between Venezuela and the United States over the expulsion of Livia Acosta, the Venezuelan consul general in Miami.
Last month, the Spanish-language Univisión television network reported that Acosta and an Iranian diplomat in Mexico had been approached in 2008 by university students who offered to hack U.S. government websites on their behalf.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she could not provide details about the decision, “But I will tell you that we do not take it lightly when we declare somebody persona non grata.”
The chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R-Miami), led the push for Acosta’s removal.
“It would not surprise me if other Venezuelan consulates in the U.S. are staffed with spies,” she told The Miami Herald Monday. “The threat represented by the former Venezuelan consul general in Miami is real so we must remain vigilant against similar acts.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said the government would respond “forcefully” to Acosta’s expulsion, but no action has been taken yet.
Also on Monday, Iran’s FARS News Agency said the government had condemned to death Amir Mirzayee Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine from Arizona, for spying and trying to “accuse Iran of supporting terrorism.” Hekmati’s family has denied the charges.
While Brazil is Iran’s largest trading partner in the region, Iran has particularly close ties with Venezuela. The two nations have signed more than 100 agreements over the years worth billions of dollars.
Chávez said Iranian companies have built almost 14,000 homes and that Iranian mills are already grinding much of the corn found in Venezuelanarepas.
Ahmadinejad was originally scheduled to visit Venezuela in September, but the meeting was cancelled because Chávez was undergoing chemotherapy for an undisclosed form of cancer. While Chávez’s face still appears swollen, his hair is growing back and he has stepped up his public appearances.
“Thanks to God here I am without chemotherapy, no cancer and no illness,” he said.
Before stepping into the presidential palace to begin their meeting Monday afternoon, Ahmadinejad said U.S. pressure would not make Iran break its ties with Latin America.
“Despite the demands of the arrogant who don’t want us together,” he said, “we will be together forever.”
AUTHOR: Jim Wyss (MiamiHerald), Antonio Delgado (El Nuevo Herald) and Rachel Roubein (McClatchy)