Everyone and their brother knows that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in Venezuela as part of a Latin American tour. It’s no secret and yet the amount of press this event has received suggests it’s more newsworthy than it is. The hype is reminiscent of the hot air blown over an Israeli announcement of a weekly flight from Caracas to Tehran via Damascus in 2009. According to journalist and author Belén Fernández, the “Caracas-Tehran one-stop has since been adopted as a pet issue by neoconservative pundits like the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Noriega”. It’s also possible to travel by air “with minimal difficulty from Caracas to places like New York and Tel Aviv” she quips, but that’s of “no concern, apparently”.
A search through the profuse amount of articles written about Monday’s Ahmadinejad-Chavez meeting resulted in at least one piece of unique commentary. At the very bottom of a Bloomberg piece ostentatiously titled “Ahmadinejad Woos Chavez-Led Allies as He Hunts Influence in U.S. Backyard” was the following passage:
Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, said that U.S. fears are raised every time Ahmadinejad visits the “same four countries” and then subside when he leaves.
“No one’s talking any more about the 400-member Iranian embassy in Nicaragua,” Farhi said in a phone interview. “I guess someone checked and there’s nothing like that there.”
Farhi’s final statement refers to the unsubstantiated claim by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (made in the same year of the Caracas-Damascus-Tehran flight declaration) that the Iranians were “building a huge embassy in Managua…And you can only imagine what that’s for.” The fact that a menacing mega embassy was never found in Nicaragua was of far less consequence for Clinton’s reputation or her sources than for those who reported the story. And as Tel Aviv-based analyst Meir Javedanfar reminded us in July, despite all the hype, “Iran’s embassy in Mangua is still small, much like its aid and presence.”
I asked Farhi to expand on her comments with some questions of my own. Why is there so much hype around this event, why is Ahmadinejad making this trip now and what does Iran’s “growing influence” in Latin America actually amount to? Her response:
This is not the first time he has visited Latin America and this is not the first time that we’re seeing talk of Iran’s growing influence there. The talk of growing influence suits hardliners both in Iran and the U.S. Ahmadinejad gets mileage out of these trips by showcasing the so-called fruits of his aggressive foreign policy. Not only is Tehran not isolated, he claims, it is also making headway in the U.S.’s backyard. The hardliners on this side also get mileage out of the imagined Iranian threat operating just next door. In reality, Ahmadinejad is traveling to Latin America now because he has been invited to attend Daniel Ortega’s inauguration. He rarely turns down an invitation especially since he gets few invitations these days. Despite his large entourage, he is only traveling to countries that essentially have challenging relations with the U.S. and in these countries it is Chavez that is in tbe driver’s seat and not Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad is enjoying the ride while he can and he has yet to fulfill most of the economic promises he has made to the leaders of Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, including Ortega.
On Monday Mideast scholar Juan Cole blogged on this topic while discussing Iran’s Latin American interests. Despite Tehran’s “taunting”, the isolated, weakened country is actually “desperate” to show that it has friends while it’s being strangled by its adversaries, he notes. Considering regular warmongering about the “threat” of Iran, that’s the big deal many are missing.