WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- A combination of official tours, trade exchanges and lucrative orders for hard-pressed Latin American exporters has raised Iran's profile in the region and the peak is yet to be reached, new statistics showed.
Iran's trade with Latin America trebled in 2008, reaching $2.9 billion. The trade increase was timely for Latin American exporters that suffered the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and faced heavily curtailed orders from the rest of the world.
The Latin Business Chronicle, citing International Monetary Fund statistics, said Brazil maintained its position as Iran's leading trade partner on the continent.
A surprise development was the rise of Argentina as Iran's second major trade partner in Latin America, despite an ongoing row over Argentina's claim that Iran was behind the 1994 bombing of a Jewish institution in Buenos Aires. The attack killed 85 people and wounded several hundred others. Iran denies any role in the incident.
An added complication in the row is the alleged involvement in the attack of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, a former Revolutionary Guard commander. Iran has rejected the link and branded it a "Zionist" plot to defame Tehran.
Analysts said the growth in Argentine-Iranian trade ties indicated overarching pragmatism that has driven the policies of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and other regional leaders. Argentina has Latin America's largest Jewish community -- more than 200,000 inhabitants. Its community leaders have been vociferous over heightened Iranian contacts with Latin America.
Latin American media noted the shifting alliances caused concerns in both the United States and Israel. Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Argentina last month in a bid to blunt Iran's diplomatic advances, MercoPress reported.
Similar pragmatism has led Latin American countries to welcome closer ties with China, despite Western pronouncements over its human-rights record, and with Russia, in the face of concerns over a replay of Cold War politics.
Argentine exporters desperate for markets want to push Argentine-Iranian trade beyond the 2008 level of $1.2 billion, which itself was a dramatic increase over the 2007 total of $30 million.
Peru has become a major importer of Iranian produce to the region, and Iran's trade with Ecuador is dramatically up and is expected to go beyond $168 million recorded for 2008 -- a big jump from $6 million in 2007.
Iran's trade with Venezuela increased 31 percent to $52 million in 2008, but the figure reflects only a fraction of the planned turnover between the two countries after the conclusion of numerous agreements when President Hugo Chavez visited Tehran in September and Ahmadinejad returned the visit last month.
Iran has made significant gains in trade with other partners in the region, including Chile, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.
This week Brazilian Foreign Minister Ceslo Amorim flew to Tehran to seek new opportunities for economic cooperation, the official Iranian Fars news agency said. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has defended his focus on building ties with Iran and backed Iran's nuclear power generation plans.