Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Snubs the West on Latin America Tour

Rodrigo Arangua / AFP / Getty Images

For those in Washington who see mushroom clouds whenever Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks, the Iranian president’s four-nation tour of Latin America this week is instructive. Even as international tensions spike over Tehran’s suspected plan to enrich weapons-grade uranium and its threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, the Iranian premier has taken his road show to the West’s own backyard. What else could this be but rank provocation?

Guerilla theater, of course. Ahmadinejad clearly aims to show with his Latin getaway, which takes him to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador, that Iran not only has friends in the hemisphere but is still seen as a rock star under the Yanquis’ nose. Lost on no one was the fact that the itinerary took him to nations run by the hemisphere’s ranking autocrats.

He traded abrazos with a beaming Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan strongman and leader of the so-called Bolivarian revolution for 21st Century Socialism. He attended the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega, a onetime Sandinista guerilla who turned in his bandoleer for an always-accommodating Nicaraguan ballot box. Today he calls on the brothers Castro in Havana, the West’s longest-standing dictatorship franchise, and wraps up his Latin rounds Thursday in Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa is doing battle with the likes of Chevron and other proxies of gringo imperialismo.

The only whistle-stop missing on this Elizabeth Arden circuit of woolly socialism was Evo Morales’s Plurinational State of Bolivia. Proof-positive, as Republican presidential hopefuls might put it, that danger and terrorism lurk on the equator. “Rallying dictators against the United States is the central agenda item of Ahmadinejad’s trip to the region,” warned U.S. Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, in a statement Jan. 10. “The growing alliances between Iran and anti-American dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere pose a serious threat to democracy and stability in the region.”

But the real news of Ahmadinejad’s Latin journey was where he didn’t go. Conspicuously missing from the trip were Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, which together represent three quarters of Latin America’s nearly $4 trillion GDP. The most glaring exception of course was Brazil, the rising, $2 trillion regional powerhouse that is spreading its model of soft-left politics and market-friendly capitalism over the region. Barely a year ago then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva seemed in thrall to the tyrant in Tehran. He visited the country twice, dismissed Green Revolution protesters as sore losers, and offered to godfather a deal to swap low-grade Iranian uranium for imported enriched nuclear fuel on the faith that Tehran sought peaceful nuclear energy, not warheads.

That deal fell flat, of course, as Iran continued to defy the West and flaunt United Nations inspectors, and relations between Brasilia and Washington quickly soured.

This time last year, speculation was rife over whether newly sworn president Dilma Rousseff would continue to carry a torch for Tehran. She was not just Lula’s successor but his political protégé, handpicked and tutored for power by the man who had been a political genius. For a while, she seemed to waver, at first condemning Brasilia’s prior record of failing to speak out on human-rights violations, then abstaining on United Nations resolutions to act against state violence in Libya and in Syria.

But in November, Brazilian diplomats got off the fence and publicly condemned the brutal crackdown by security forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The vote was hailed as a milestone as Brazil “broke free of the straightjacket” that implicitly bound poor nations from censuring other poor nations, according to Human Rights Watch’s Nadim Houry.

It may be too soon to say whether Brazil has fully embraced the U.N.’s mandate of the Responsibility to Protect, or “R2P,” a bold new directive to give the international community legal and moral grounds to intervene in a sovereign nation when the civilian population is in danger. (Brasilia’s diplomats speak instead of the “responsibility when protecting,” a wordsmith’s flourish meant to prevent rank invasion under the guise of humanitarian rescue.)

But no one missed Brazil’s diplomatic about-face. “Rousseff is a manager, interested in practical matters more than ideology,” says Luiz Felipe Lampréia, a former Brazilian foreign minister, adding that Brazilian diplomacy is slowly swinging back to its historical prudence. “She knows there’s nothing in it for Brazil to befriend Iran, which practically has no friends. At the same time, there’s nothing gained in provoking the United States.”

Iran and Chávez’s Bolivarian friends may be up to one kind of mischief or another. But without Latin America’s star player, Iran’s tour in the West is an act on an empty stage.