By RACHEL JONES
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez met with a delegation from Iran on Saturday to prepare for an upcoming visit from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — an alliance that has provoked concern in Washington.
Venezuela’s ambassador to Iran, David Velasquez, said following the meeting that Ahmadinejad’s visit will deepen ties between the countries and “allow us to move ahead in the transfer of technology and industry,” according to Venezuela’s state-run Bolivarian News Agency.
Latin America’s leftist leaders have in recent years strengthened relations with countries including China and Iran — inroads that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday termed “quite disturbing.”
“They are building very strong economic and political connections with a lot of these leaders. I don’t think that’s in our interest,” Clinton said.
She said President Barack Obama’s administration aims to improve deteriorating relations with Latin American nations including Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela to counter the growing influence of China, Iran and Russia in the region.
Chavez and Ahmadinejad — both well-known for their anti-U.S. rhetoric — have forged ties in everything from finance to factories. Iran now manufactures cars, tractors and bicycles in Venezuela.
Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar met with Chavez on Wednesday to discuss military cooperation, though a statement from Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not divulge details.
The two leaders have also established a joint development bank with an initial capital of $200 million, and will inaugurate the bank’s Venezuelan offices during Ahmadinejad’s visit beginning Thursday, Mining Minister Rodolfo Sanz said.
The visit comes just weeks after Chavez and Obama exchanged smiles and handshakes at a summit in Trinidad and Tobago. At the meeting, Chavez and Clinton discussed returning their ambassadors after rocky relations under the Bush administration prompted Chavez to expel the U.S. ambassador and recall his envoy to Washington.
But Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, warned that Chavez could be endangering his chances at improved relations with the U.S. by “trying to balance too many balls at once.”
“This is a real opportunity for good and constructive policy to emerge between Venezuela and the U.S.,” Birns said. “But it’s not going to happen if U.S. policy makers can legitimately prove that Iran is not playing a constructive role” in Venezuela.