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Ahmadinejad's Excellent Latin American Adventure
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is making a swing through Latin America this week, his second tour in four months, to cultivate anti-U.S. allies, using trade and ideology as his weapons. He is visiting leaders of what he hopes will be a broad coalition against the United States: his good friend Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, along with Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Ecuador's new president Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

Iran's geo-strategic interests in the region are easy to see: It desperately needs political allies and new markets for its goods as it comes under increasing pressure from Europe and the United States over its nuclear program.

With some money to burn, Ahmadinejad is looking to buy some friends and support among leaders in a region that is turning increasingly hostile to the United States, free trade and drug erradication programs. Latin American nations now feel they have little to lose by turning against the United States, given the severe drop in U.S interest and attention to the area closest to its southern border.

Ahmadinejad's frequent travels to the region underscore the importance Iran places on a few countries in Latin America. Argentina, to its credit, is still seeking to prosecute senior Iranian officials for their role in directing the 1994 bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires. Everyone else seems to have forgotten the attacks ever happened.

It is unlikely Ahmadinejad is touring Latin America solely for the reasons listed above, however. There is little, in real economic terms, to be gained from Iran-Latin America trade. The political support Iran gathers in Latin America is useful but again, in real terms, not much more than marginal.

So what is the real reason for such high-level, sustained interest by Iran? There is a deeper concern than the normal politics of the moment.

Iran's influence and presence in Latin America has grown as Hezbollah's presence has increased along with noticable Iranian-funded Shi'ite efforts to win converts, build mosques and spread their ideology through literature and the internet.

Hezbollah-linked individuals and groups from Panama to Isla Margarita to the Tri-Border Area help funnel millions of dollars to the Lebanese armed wing of Hezbollah, which is also responsive to Iran, its main state sponsor.

It seems unlikely to me that Iran's sudden public interest and the above-mentioned treds are mere coincidence. Nor is the alliance with Chavez. Iran fears a U.S. attack at some point to try to take out its nuclear capacity. Another front in such a war would be not only good strategy, but necessary. The threat is straightforward-if Iran's borders are under siege, so will the borders of the United States be under siege.

This is a dangerous moment because Venezuela sells almost half its oil to the U.S. market, and is using the money to buy weapons from Iran and Russia, contract to build its own Kalashinkov factory and generally engage in a military buildup that has no target other than the rest of the region.

Given Chavez's tolerance, if not outright support for the FARC in Colombia, this is a volatile mixture. The FARC, in turn, has extensive relationships with drug trafficking groups and criminal gangs that constantly penetrate the U.S. border. The basis for cooperation need not be ideological or theological. It can be simply the desire to hurt a common enemy. In this case, that is the United States.

That alliance is abundantly clear from the _abrazos_ and smiles Chavez and Ahmadinejad exchange when they meet, and the language they use to describe each other.

"Hugo is my brother," Ahmadinejad said during his last visit to Venezuela in September, when the two leaders inaugurated a joint oil well. "Hugo is the champion of the fight against imperialism."

But the fight could spread well beyond the issues of imperialism, to a new Iran-driven Islamist threat from the south.
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