The government of Iran is following the lead of new ally Venezuela by taking its anti-American message to Bolivia, an impoverished but strategically positioned country in the heart of South America.
A nemesis to U.S. interests in the Middle East for 30 years, Iran is now pouring millions of dollars of aid into Bolivia -- including construction of a milk factory in Achacachi. Its real motive, however, is joining Bolivia and Venezuela to counter U.S. interests in Latin America, analysts said.
"Is Iran in Bolivia a nuisance to the United States? Of course it is," said Abbas Milani, the co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "Iran will try to shore up support for Bolivia's president and help the anti-American message of its regime. And being in Bolivia will give Iran more pawns to play in its dealings with the Europeans and the United States."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a constant U.S. critic, brought Iran and Bolivia together, even though the two countries have little in common but natural gas, large stretches of desert and official antipathy toward the United States. Chavez's government flew Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Bolivian President Evo Morales in September 2007. Morales traveled to Iran a year later.
Chavez has organized Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba into a trade and political alliance that regularly lambastes capitalism and U.S. influence in Latin America.
Iran also has begun to assist Ecuador and Nicaragua, and its Latin American activities have prompted worry from the Obama administration.
"I'm 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," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate committee Jan. 27. "They're opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts, behind which they interfere in what is going on in some of these countries."
Jorge Quiroga, who was Bolivia's president from 2001 to 2002 and lost the 2005 presidential race to Morales, said Iran is benefiting from its investment in Bolivia.
"Iran needs international recognition," Quiroga said in an interview. "It needs to show that it is not an international pariah."
He added, "We have no cultural, historical or commercial ties whatsoever. Bolivia knows nothing about Iran."
Morales is a socialist, an Aymara Indian and a coca-growing farmer. Ahmadinejad is a conservative hard-liner and Holocaust doubter who heads an Islamic republic.
Morales has joked that he's become part of the "axis of evil."
Bolivia even broke relations with Israel to protest the Gaza invasion -- even though Israel doesn't have an ambassador in Bolivia -- in solidarity with Iran.
A secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Bolivia said on three separate days that no embassy official was available for an interview because an Iranian trade delegation was visiting.
Morales seems determined to deepen ties with Iran, even though doing so will strain already-difficult relations with the United States.
Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador in September for allegedly conspiring with opposition politicians. The United States then expelled Bolivia's ambassador.
The United States and Iran haven't had diplomatic relations since 1979.
"The United States should worry about its own problems," Juan Ramon Quintana, the minister of the presidency, said in an interview. "The Bolivian people define who helps us, not the United States."