- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2012

Tensions between the United States and Iran reached new heights Monday, as Iran’s president met with Venezuela’s leader amid reports that Tehran has issued a death sentence on a U.S. citizen accused of spying for the CIA.

In addition, the United Nations’ nuclear-watchdog agency on Monday confirmed reports that Iran has begun enriching uranium in an underground, mountain-ringed facility that would be difficult to attack in an airstrike.

Concerns, meanwhile, mounted that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Latin America tour signals a strategic effort to forge Western Hemisphere alliances bent on subverting U.S.-led sanctions against Iran’s energy sector.

“The Iranian president’s visit to Latin America serves as a somber reminder that our enemies are welcomed by our undemocratic neighbors,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“We must strengthen our regional alliances to confront the onslaught of anti-democratic forces in Latin America whose goal is to undermine our nation.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez defied the United States in their meeting in the Venezuelan presidential palace in Caracas.

“They present us as aggressors,” Mr. Chavez said of Washington. “Iran hasn’t invaded anyone. Who has dropped thousands and thousands of bombs … including atomic bombs?”

Mr. Ahmadinejad added that Iran and Venezuela will “always be together” and called Mr. Chavez a “champion of fighting against imperialism.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad will next visit Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador, all left-leaning or communist nations he has sought to befriend. It remains to be seen whether he will attend the Guatemalan presidential inauguration of Otto Perez Molina on Jan. 14.

U.S. officials said Guatemala is not on the itinerary, but Guatemalan officials have said Mr. Ahmadinejad has not confirmed or denied whether he will be there.

His presence may be a slap to the United States because the conservative Mr. Molina, a former military officer, represents one of the region’s few emerging U.S. allies.

Guatemala also has a newfound strategic importance for Iran: The tiny Central American nation recently was tapped to hold one of the non-permanent seats on the 15-member U.N. Security Council in 2012 and 2013.

U.S. condemns death sentence

On a separate front, the Obama administration said yesterday that it was aware of, but could not confirm, Iranian state radio reports that Iran had issued a death sentence on U.S. citizen Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, a former Marine and military translator accused of spying for the CIA.

“If true, we strongly condemn this verdict,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “Allegations that Mr. Hekmati either worked for, or was sent to Iran by, the CIA are simply untrue.”

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