Washington Post - Reuters
September 18, 2006
CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's defense of Iranian nuclear programs during a visit by the Islamic republic's president burnished his anti-U.S. image but risked losing support for a U.N. Security Council seat.
With trips abroad, speeches championing poor nations and generous bilateral oil deals, Chavez has devoted his foreign policy for months to winning a vote next month for a rotating seat on the top U.N. forum over U.S. objections.
His embrace of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a two-day visit that ends on Monday put him further at odds with the West and could alienate developing nations that welcome his anti-U.S. stances but worry about Iran's atomic ambitions.
Chavez's support for a fellow OPEC country in the same week that he will go to the United Nations to lobby for a seat on a council is typical of the risk-taking style of a president whose confidence is buoyed by high oil prices.
"In making an alliance with Iran, Chavez's calculation is that whatever governments think about Iran, he believes they dislike the United States more," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
"It's a big gamble," he added.
A seat on the 15-member council would not give Venezuela a key vote to block a U.S. campaign for international sanctions against Iran.
But the United States has backed Guatemala, the rival for Latin America's open seat, hoping to deprive Chavez of a prestigious platform for what it says are his increasingly destabilizing, anti-democratic policies.
Venezuela needs two-thirds of the vote when the 192-member General Assembly chooses Argentina's replacement in October. Peru has Latin America's other council seat for another year.
The council's 10 nonpermanent members serve two-year terms on seats accorded by region. Guatemala acknowledged this month it lacked the votes to beat Venezuela.
But some moderate African nations might now withdraw support for Chavez in the secret U.N. vote, said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs think tank.
Neighbors such as Chile and countries across Europe and Asia that were not solidly behind the Venezuelan candidacy, face a fresh argument against Chavez, Shifter said.
Venezuelan officials say widespread support in Latin America and Africa, as well as backing from the Arab League and major powers such as Russia and China should assure victory.
But Birns was skeptical.
"Even though the U.N. vote is the most important item on his agenda, he may well have overplayed his hand at the expense of some votes that he had every reason to count on," Birns said.
Despite widespread fears Tehran is pursuing an atomic bomb, Chavez said the program was peaceful and pledged to defend Iran's right to do civilian nuclear work for its stated aim of generating power.
Traditionally, Iranian-Venezuelan ties have focused almost exclusively on their common interests as major oil exporters.
But Chavez, a Cuba ally who has visited in recent weeks U.S. antagonists Belarus and Syria, has used the relationship with Iran to highlight the anti-American credentials that form the foundation for his expected re-election in December.
"By siding with Iran, he is positioning himself as an anti-U.S. leader on the world stage," Shifter said. "For Chavez, that gives him great political benefit."