It is clear to all but the most blinkered observer that Iran's recent presidential election was a sham. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fraudulent "victory" over challenger Mir Hussein Mousavi, and the violence that followed, confirmed that the Islamic Republic is a brutal police state that crushes dissenting voices. Most governments around the world have refused to congratulate Ahmadinejad, realizing that such a gesture would merely legitimize the stolen election and discourage the pro-democracy protesters marching in the streets.
Unfortunately, various foreign officials--mainly from Middle Eastern countries and authoritarian regimes--did congratulate Ahmadinejad. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez was among them. He applauded the Iranian president's "very big and important victory." Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government denounced foreign criticism of the election as a "vicious and unfounded smear campaign." Prior to the election, Chávez had referred to Ahmadinejad as "a courageous fighter for the Islamic Revolution, the defense of the Third World, and in the struggle against imperialism."
Elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega sent Ahmadinejad a congratulatory note that began with "Beloved Brother Ahmadinejad" and ended with this: "With love and admiration always, your brother salutes you." In the middle of his letter, Ortega wrote: "I send you a fraternal revolutionary greeting, from this country and this revolution that saw the light of victory in the same year of 1979 when Iran rose up and liberated itself to found the Islamic Republic and its own Revolution." (Ortega must still appreciate the millions of dollars in aid that Iran sent his Sandinista government in the years following their respective revolutions. Those loans, incidentally, have never been repaid.)
That Chávez and Ortega would gush over Ahmadinejad's election "win" is not surprising: Both are anti-American radicals who enjoy close relations with Iran. Indeed, quietly but deliberately, the Iranian government has been expanding its reach into Latin America. Earlier this year, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that he was "concerned about the level of, frankly, subversive activity that the Iranians are carrying on in a number of places in Latin America, particularly South America and Central America."
Tehran has established partnerships with both Chávez and Ortega, and has also signed lucrative energy agreements with Bolivia. The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, visited Tehran last September. Ahmadinejad said his country was "interested in expanding relations with Bolivia in all fields." Expanding energy cooperation with the Iranians is not necessarily a sinister act. But in late May, the Associated Press obtained an Israeli intelligence document that suggests the Venezuelan and Bolivian governments are providing Iran with uranium.
Whether or not the uranium charge is accurate, the Chávez-Ahmadinejad partnership has broader implications for the war on terrorism. There is credible evidence that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terror group, has established a presence in Venezuela. The Los Angeles Times has reported that Western terrorism experts believe Hezbollah may now be "using Venezuela as a base for operations." A year ago, the U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of two Venezuelans whom it designated as financial backers of Hezbollah. Treasury accused the Venezuelan regime of "employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers." In late April, the State Department released its newest survey of global terrorism, which noted that Iran and Venezuela are still running "weekly flights connecting Tehran and Damascus with Caracas. Passengers on these flights were reportedly subject to only cursory immigration and customs controls at Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas."
The State Department report also observed that Nicaragua continues "to grant Iranian nationals visa-free entry into Nicaragua," as it has since 2007. This is not surprising. Ortega has sought warm relations with Iran and offered obsequious praise for Ahmadinejad. Indeed, he has honored the Iranian president with both the Liberty Medal and the Rubén Darío Medal, which are two of Nicaragua's most prestigious awards. Under the Ortega government, Iran has opened a massive new embassy in Managua, which has raised concerns about Iranian intentions. As journalist Todd Bensman reported in early 2008, there have been "local press reports accusing the Iranians of sneaking in Revolutionary Guards under diplomatic cover." Meanwhile, Tehran is helping to bankroll a deep-water port on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast.
The world's attention is rightly focused on Iran's violent internal crackdown and its nuclear program. But we should not forget about Iran's meddling in Latin America, which poses a threat to regional stability and U.S. interests. It is shameful that Chávez and Ortega have lavished such sycophantic praise on Ahmadinejad and endorsed his election fraud. While the Iranian regime has been killing student demonstrators, Venezuela and Nicaragua have been supporting that regime and rebuking its critics. Once again, Chávez and Ortega have shown their true colors.
Jaime Daremblum is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.