- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is encouraging his Latin American allies to expand ties with Iran, which is offering trade concessions and financial incentives and winning influence in the region.

During two recent visits to Venezuela, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad signed more than $17 billion worth of economic agreements with Mr. Chavez.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega last month received Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki while Bolivian President Evo Morales announced a new trade deal with Iran.

“The struggle for justice and truth in the framework of economic development is the principle objective of the government in Nicaragua and of our friends in Iran,” said Mr. Ortega when Mr. Mottaki arrived after stopping in Venezuela for talks with Mr. Chavez.

Mr. Ortega called Iran a “victim” of the U.S., which he accused of “supporting terrorism.”

Speaking in the rural Bolivian community of San Julian on the same day, Mr. Morales told peasant supporters to grow soybeans to export to Iran.

“In the last meeting I had with the ambassador of Iran, he told me that his country will buy all the production that we generate,” Mr. Morales said in announcing the imminent arrival of an Iranian trade delegation.

Bolivian officials say that they need new markets for agricultural products, which may lose U.S. tariff preferences over Mr. Morales’ refusal to sign a free-trade agreement with Washington and eradicate coca plantations that supply international cocaine traffickers.

Officials also credit Iran with offering much needed aid and investment.

But some analysts warn of broader consequences from economic ties between the region and Iran.

“Exporting soya to the people of Iran should be purely commercial. But as the proposal derives from a mutual cooperation agreement between the governments of Iran and Venezuela, it does have political connotations,” said a leading Bolivian international analyst, Ximena Costas.

With Mr. Morales sitting next to him on his Sunday TV talk show, “Alo Presidente,” Mr. Chavez called on Iran to “analyze ways” of incorporating Bolivia and other members of his Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) into existing economic agreements with Venezuela.

ALBA is a socialist common-market initiative originally formed between Venezuela and Cuba, which has recently incorporated Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Mr. Chavez, Mr. Morales, Mr. Ortega and Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage met in Caracas last week to coordinate trade policies.

Mr. Chavez has been vocal in his support of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and has openly asked for aid to help build a Venezuelan nuclear reactor.

There have been Venezuelan press reports about the presence of Iranian scientists at uranium mines located in the lower Orinoco River basin.

Some analysts speculate that current talks between Iran and Bolivia may also involve mining concessions for uranium reserves in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands where Venezuela is stationing troops, according to local authorities.

Not all Latin governments are happy about growing ties between Latin America and Iran.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner stayed away from the inauguration of Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa because Mr. Ahmadinejad was invited.

Argentina has recently issued indictments against Iranian diplomatic officials reportedly linked to the 1996 truck bombing against a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 100 persons.

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