Chavez embraces Iranian leader

Venezuelan president works to strengthen relations with Middle Eastern countries

January 14, 2007|By New York Times News Service

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived here yesterday for talks with President Hugo Chavez, on the first leg of a Latin American visit to enhance Iran's stature among governments where distrust of the Bush administration runs deep.

It is Ahmadinejad's second visit to Venezuela in the past five months, and the two leaders were scheduled to talk about strengthening their economic ties. From here, the Iranian president is to visit Ecuador and Nicaragua, where leftist presidents aligned with Chavez are being sworn in this month.

Venezuela's government promoted the visit as an example of Middle Eastern solidarity with Chavez's opposition to U.S. foreign policy. Venezuela has been a vocal defender of Iran as the United States steps up efforts to circumscribe Ahmadinejad's government, most recently through military raids last week on suspected Iranian operatives in Iraq.

State television here showed images of Chavez embracing Ahmadinejad and of Iranian cars rolling off an assembly line at a recently opened factory in the city of Maracay. Fifty cadets from Venezuela's naval academy were on hand to receive the Iranian president at the international airport in Maiquetia.

"Welcome, fighter for just causes," Chavez said in a speech here yesterday before the National Assembly, describing Ahmadinejad as a "revolutionary" and a "brother."

Nowhere has Iran's search for allies in Latin America been more fruitful than in Venezuela. The two countries have signed an array of agreements in recent months, pledging to work together here in oil exploration, building low-income housing, and assembling tractors and bicycles, among dozens of other ventures.

The tightening alliance with Iran comes as Chavez pushes for broad changes in Venezuela's political and economic structures. Last week, Chavez's government said it would nationalize the electricity industry and the country's largest phone company.

Chavez also announced a plan that, according to some interpretations, would reconfigure municipal governments by replacing them with entities called communal councils. The president's supporters in Congress say the project is inspired by the Paris Commune, the socialist government that briefly ruled Paris in 1871. Critics of the plan - which also calls for the construction of new cities from scratch in Venezuela's interior - say it would effectively eliminate some of the few elected politicians in the country who remain opposed to the government.

Ahmadinejad's visit has alarmed Jewish organizations here and elsewhere, which are concerned by Ahmadinejad's aggressive talk in relation to Israel. Heinz Sonntag, a prominent Venezuelan sociologist and political commentator, said the visit by Ahmadinejad was an "affront and an eventual threat to our fellow countrymen who are Jewish."

Venezuela has a long history of close relations with Middle Eastern countries, dating to the founding of OPEC in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1960 by Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, in an effort to keep oil prices high. Chavez has strengthened those ties through overtures to Iran, and more recently Syria, where Venezuela and Iran have plans to build an oil refinery capable of processing 150,000 barrels a day.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.