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      Iran's Ahmadinejad Begins Tour of Latin America

      Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad begins a tour of Latin America Sunday to bolster his support from allies in the Western hemisphere.
      By Chana Ya'ar
      First Publish: 1/8/2012, 9:35 AM

      Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is set to begin a four-nation tour of Latin America Sunday to tighten up ties with the countries who remain as his allies. Iran's ministers for foreign affairs, energy, commerce, trade and mines will accompany him on the tour.

      First stop on the list is Venezuela, to see close friend and ally President Hugo Chavez, who was diagnosed in June with cancer but has since declared he has recovered after treatment in Cuba and will stand for re-election this year. The two men are bound together not only by their common status as heads of major oil nations, but also as foes of the United States.

      On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad is expected to attend the inauguration of recently re-elected Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega.

      The Iranian president will make a quick stop in Cuba on Wednesday, to be followed by a trip to Ecuador on Thursday according to officials there, the AFP news agency reported. All four stops will be venues for discussions about "bilateral ties and regional and international issues," according to Iran's state-run IRNA news agency, and all four are countries whose relations with the U.S. are less than cordial at best. All four also are strong supporters of the Palestinian Authority.

      This year Brazil is absent on the agenda, however -- a change from previous diplomatic tours by the Iranian president.

      U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in response to a question about Ahmadinejad's tour, "As the regime feels increasing pressure, it is desperate for friends and flailing around in interesting places to find new friends."

      "What used to be called the backyard of America shows the dynamism of the Islamic Republic of Iran's diplomacy in the world arena," boasted Mohammed Reza Forqani, Ahmadinejad's international affairs director, when speaking last week about the trip. State-run Iranian media quoted him as saying the tour "invalidates the claims of enemies" -- a pointed remark aimed in response to Nuland's statement.