Now, Ahmadinejad's corner: Chavez, Swaziland and Hamas

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez is standing by his man in the Middle East, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even as hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iranians took to the streets Wednesday for the fifth straight day to protest his claim to a landslide reelection.

Chavez belongs to a small circle of political oddfellows who support Ahmadinejad, including the King of Swaziland; Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization; and Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese group.

The Venezuelan government, "in the name of the people," hailed the "extraordinary democratic development" that resulted in Ahmadinejad's victory Friday, according to a foreign ministry statement.

"The Bolivarian government of Venezuela expresses its firm rejection of the ferocious and unfounded campaign to discredit, from abroad, that has been unleashed against Iran, with the objective of muddying the political climate of this brother country," said the statement issued late Tuesday. "We demand the immediate end to maneuvers to intimidate and destabilize the Islamic Revolution."

Chavez's support for Iran's beleaguered leader is no surprise. The two leaders have developed warm ties in recent years, based on their mutual antipathy for the U.S. Other than the fact they're both major oil producers and oppose U.S. foreign policy, the countries have little in common.

Iran now manufactures cars, tractors and bicycles in Venezuela, and Chavez made his sixth trip to Iran in April.

"Iran and Venezuela ties have introduced a common revolutionary front . . . in the world," Ahmadinejad said then. He vowed that the two countries would "continue to stand by each other."

The two leaders inaugurated a bi-national bank on that trip and said they were providing $200 million to finance projects in both countries.

Chavez also has paved the way for the Iranian leader to seek ties with other South American nations, to the alarm of Washington, which considers Iran a state sponsor of terrorism.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told senators in January that he was more concerned about Iran's "meddling" in Latin America than Russia's efforts in previous months to re-establish ties in the region.

Russia, which hosted Ahmadinejad at a previously planned international summit Tuesday, gave a cautious endorsement to Ahmadinejad's election claim. Sergei Ryabkov, a deputy foreign minister, said: "Elections in Iran are an internal affair of the Iranian people, but we welcome the newly elected president of that state."

Bolivia has become a particularly favored nation, getting a visit from Ahmadinejad in 2007 and millions of dollars in aid to build hospitals and milk factories. Bolivian President Evo Morales visited Iran in 2008.

Ahmadinejad was supposed to visit Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil in May but canceled the trip at the last moment, for reasons that were not fully explained.

Ahmadinejad's forays into Latin America haven't always been smooth.

Brazilian officials rebuked Ahmadinejad for raising doubts about the Holocaust.

Earlier this month, Iran's envoy to Bolivia denied a leaked report from Israel's foreign ministry that said that Bolivia and Venezuela are supplying uranium to Iran with the likely goal of building nuclear weapons.

Like Ahmadinejad, Chavez has been accused of running roughshod over democracy by sidelining his enemies, stifling criticism and concentrating more power in his own hands.

Chavez and Ahmadinejad "are guys who use the democratic process to consolidate power and then don't think the democratic process should be used to deny them power," said Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador who now teaches international relations at Penn State University. "Neither of these guys want to see a change in government."


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