Obama: Hugo Chavez, Iran ties not a ‘serious’ security threat to US

President Obama downplayed Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez's ties to Iran in an interview Tuesday, saying that they haven't posed a “serious” national security threat to the United States.

“We're always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe,” Obama said to Miami Spanish-language station América TeVe. “But overall my sense is that what Mr. Chavez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us.”

The president's comments were sure to attract criticism from conservatives, who have sought to paint the commander in chief as kowtowing to repressive regimes in Latin America and unwilling to confront Iran. Obama's remarks were widely disseminated on Wednesday by the Republican National Committee.

Republicans in Congress have raised concerns about Tehran's ties to Latin American leftists, with the House Foreign Affairs Committee asking in a February hearing if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador was spurred by a desire to “attack” the United States or undercut its influence in the region.

Critics on the left say the Iranian threat in Latin America has been overblown. Last year, however, elements tied to Iran's elite Quds Force attempted to team up with a Mexican drug gang to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States.

The United States is spearheading international efforts to pressure Iran over its nuclear program. Iran insists the program is for peaceful energy, yet Western nations fear Tehran is seeking weapons capability.

In the interview, Obama also defended his decision to lift travel restrictions on Cuba, but said Raúl Castro's government needs to make democratic changes for the two nations' relationship to improve.

“I believe that there should be a way for us to resolve this 50-year conflict with Cuba, but it involves recognizing liberty and, you know, releasing political prisoners and showing movement inside of Cuba," Obama said. "We've shown flexibility in remittances and lifting parts of the travel ban for family members, and I think that was the right thing to do. And my hope is that the Cuban government begins to recognize that their system is no longer working."