- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 7, 2012

U.S. officials will closely watch the Iranian president’s visit to Latin America this week, concerned that he is seeking to forge alliances amid growing international support for U.S.-led sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to South and Central America comes amid increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which has carried out recent military drills in the Persian Gulf and threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-sixth of the world’s oil is transported.

The U.S. sanctions aim to block Iran’s nuclear program, despite claims by the Islamic republic that its program is peaceful. The sanctions specifically authorize U.S. penalties against foreign firms doing business with the Iranian energy sector.

But the Obama administration has stopped short of openly discouraging Latin American nations from inviting Mr. Ahmadinejad, with one State Department official telling The Washington Times that “merely hosting Iran in a diplomatic visit does not violate the sanctions regime.”

“As [Iran] feels increasing pressure, it is desperate for friends and flailing around,”State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Friday.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is scheduled first to meet with outspoken U.S. critic Hugo Chavez of Venezuela; over coming days, he will visit Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador - all left-leaning or communist nations that Iran has sought to grow ties with in recent years.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Ahmadinejad will be welcomed by Guatemala, where President-elect Otto Perez Molina will host dignitaries attending his inauguration on Jan. 14.

The prospect of Iran’s president visiting Guatemala has caught the U.S. off guard since the conservative Mr. Molina, a former military officer, represents one of the region’s few emerging U.S. allies.

There are also concerns because of the Central American country’s newfound strategic importance on the international stage: It recently was tapped to hold one of the nonpermanent seats on the 15-member U.N. Security Council, from 2012 through 2013.

“This has made a light go on for the Iranians, who are thinking, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be good to go make nice with the Guatemalans so we can get them to side with us on the Security Council,’ ” said Ray Walser, a former State Department official and Latin America analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

U.S. and Guatemalan officials offered conflicting responses over the weekend about whether Mr. Ahmadinejad would attend Mr. Molina’s inauguration.

A State Department official told The Times that “the Guatemalan government has given us assurances that Ahmadinejad will not attend.” But Guatemalan officials said the issue had not yet been resolved.

“We still don’t have any confirmation about whether or not he will be attending,” said Fernando de la Cerda, an official at the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington. “Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited all governments with whom we have diplomatic relations, including Iran.”

Having long criticized the U.S.’ presence in the Persian Gulf, Iran appears eager to increase its presence in the Western Hemisphere. While Iran’s miiltary in September announced plans to operate in waters off the U.S. coast, it remains to be seen whether its navy has the capability to conduct such operations.

Some foreign policy experts and officials also have cited concern that Iran seeks to embed members of its elite Quds Force around the region. The militia is designated by the United States as a terrorist group, and U.S. officials in October tied it to a failed plot to hire Mexican drug cartels to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington.

A State Department official on Friday told The Times that reports of expanding Quds Force activities in the region could not be corroborated or confirmed, even as the department publicly called on Latin American nations to tread carefully with Iran.

“We are making absolutely clear to countries around the world that now is not the time to be deepening ties, not security ties, not economic ties, with Iran,” the State Department’s Ms. Nuland said.

Analysts say such assertions are unlikely to have an impact in Latin America, regardless of the security threat posed by a potentially nuclear Iran.

“U.S. officials can try and put pressure on these countries to go along with the sanctions and whatever they’re trying to do with Iran, whether it’s war or regime change,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington. “But I know these governments, and they’re all against that. Argentina; Brazil; Venezuela, of course; Ecuador; Bolivia - they’re just against it on principle.”

Others contend that as much as Iran may wish to show it has friends in Latin America, economic ties between the two are overblown.

“Across the board, [the] share of Latin American total exports that Iran represents is pretty minimal,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, who heads the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Mrs. Arnson said such trade can likely be expected to continue since the U.S. sanctions regime on Iran is not the same as a full embargo.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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