Iran's foreign minister begins Latin America tour with Cuba visit

Iran's foreign minister begins Latin America tour with Cuba visit
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Iran's foreign minister kicked off a Latin American tour Sunday in Havana, saying the Iran nuclear deal has "removed obstacles" for closer ties between his country and the region.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will visit Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela, reported the Tasnim News Agency.

Zarif said he plans to sign oil, energy and maritime transport agreements during his tour.

But the visit is raising concerns with a key Republican lawmaker.

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“The timing of Zarif’s trip is significant as Iran could use many of these rogue regimes to circumvent remaining sanctions, undermine U.S. interests, and expand the drug trafficking network that helps finance its illicit activities," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in a statement.

"Tehran’s classic playbook is to use cultural centers, new embassies or consulates, or cooperative agreements on various areas to act as façades aimed at expanding Iran’s radical extremist network."

Save for Chile, the countries Zarif is visiting align with the region's ideological left and tend to have difficult relations with the United States. 

Venezuela has long been Iran's closest ally in the region. After a decade of economic growth and aggressive regional diplomacy, Venezuela was plunged into a severe economic crisis because of a sharp drop in oil prices and government mismanagement. Its yearly inflation rate — the highest in the world — now hovers north of 700 percent.

"Zarif’s trip is a clear indication of Iran’s intent to expand its operations in the Americas post-nuclear deal given that in the past, press reports have stated that Hezbollah maintains a presence in Cuba, Iran helped open a military facility in Bolivia, and Venezuela’s PDVSA [the state-owned oil company] was sanctioned for cooperating with Iran," said Ros-Lehtinen.

While Iran's influence in the region is relatively small, its role in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina remains a source of tension. 

Argentine prosecutors alleged the Iranian government ordered the attack and Hezbollah carried it out, purportedly as retaliation after a nuclear technology transfer agreement between the two countries was terminated.

Zarif said Monday that Cuba and Iran are united in resistance to U.S. "atrocities," reported The New York Times.

Iran "has always shown that we can win through resistance," said Zarif.