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."
Although he was born in Arizona and graduated high school in Michigan, Mr. Hekmati is of Iranian descent, and Tehran has accused him of being inside Iran on a special U.S. intelligence mission.
Mr. Hekmati's father, a community college professor in Flint, Mich., has said his son is not a CIA agent and was visiting his grandmothers in Iran when he was arrested.
With no diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington, U.S. officials are hoping Iranian authorities will allow Swiss diplomats access to Mr. Hekmati in prison. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran.
Friction caused by the case was only amplified Monday when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed claims by Iran that it is pushing ahead with a clandestine uranium-enrichment program at the heavily fortified Fordo nuclear facility in the nation's northern city of Qom.
An agency spokesman issued a statement saying the Fordo facility is under "containment and surveillance" by the IAEA, but the agency also lent credence to Iranian claims to be achieving a 20 percent enrichment of uranium at the facility.
Since uranium must be enriched 90 percent to reach weapons grade, Iran asserts the Fordo activities are peaceful and geared toward producing fuel for a nuclear reactor that makes medical radioisotopes used to treat cancer patients.
However, the 20 percent enrichment confirmed by the IAEA far surpasses the 3 percent to 5 percent level needed to power a nuclear electricity reactor and signals a potentially alarming uptick from earlier levels reported by Iran.
"When you enrich to 20 percent, there is no possible reason for that if you're talking about a peaceful program," said Mrs. Nuland at the State Department.
"It generally tends to indicate that you are enriching to a level that takes you to a different kind of nuclear program."
The development sparks fresh fears of an Iranian nuclear program closer to the achievement of warheads and raises a difficult specter for U.S. and European allies that, in recent weeks, have built international momentum around sanctions aimed at blocking the program.
The United States is calling on countries "to impress upon the Iranian regime that the course that it's on in its nuclear dialogue with the international community is the wrong one," Mrs. Nuland said.
"It's in the interest of all countries, including the countries that he's visiting in Latin America, that Iran proves the peaceful intent of its nuclear program to the world," she added, referring to Mr. Ahmadinejad's trip.
The sanctions specifically authorize U.S. penalties against foreign firms doing business with the Iranian energy sector. The Obama administration acknowledged the complex hurdles that will need to be overcome in order for the sanctions to achieve success on a wide international scale.
"For these sanctions to be most effective, they need to be multilateral and have multilateral participation," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
His remarks appeared aimed at China, which signaled a distaste for the sanctions on Monday ahead of Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner's arrival in Beijing, where he will seek support for a restriction of Chinese trade with the Iranian oil sector.
Cui Tiankai, a deputy foreign minister in China, which depends on oil from Iran, warned against connecting the nuclear issue to the oil trade.
"The normal trade relations and energy cooperation between China and Iran have nothing to do with the nuclear issue," he told reporters.
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