MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won support from Latin America's left-wing populist leaders in Venezuela and Nicaragua as he set off for talks in Havana with Cuban President Raul Castro and conclusive meetings in Ecuador.
The Iranian leader's scheduled tour of Latin America, reciprocating various visits to Iran by regional leaders, coincided with mounting tensions in the Persian Gulf and raised speculation it might aim to garner support against U.N., U.S. and European sanctions on the country.
EU leaders will meet later this month to consider whether to stop buying oil from Iran. Tehran has warned new sanctions will prompt it to close the Strait of Hormuz waterway to oil shipping, including much of its own. Iran faces further curbs on the payments systems it uses for selling crude oil abroad, an area increasingly targeted in sanctions.
Despite effusive expressions of support from longtime radical friends, Ahmadinejad is missing key support he received earlier from Brazil, not included on his itinerary this time. Brazil's former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was more forthcoming in support to Iran and criticism of the West over Iran's nuclear program than his successor, President Dilma Rousseff.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, speaking in Managua after meeting Ahmadinejad, called for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and branded Israel's nuclear program the main threat to the region's peace and stability.
He defended Iran's nuclear program.
"Every country has the right to use peaceful nuclear energy and no one can deprive any nation of this right," Ortega said.
Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, quoted in the media, also called for respect for "Iran's right for the peaceful use of nuclear energy."
Earlier in Caracas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ahmadinejad joined in issuing a condemnation of the United States and U.S. allies for using the controversy over Iran's enrichment of uranium to unjustly threaten Iran.
"They accuse us of being warmongers," Chavez said. "They're the threat." Chavez earlier said accusations of Iran developing nuclear weapons were false in the same way reports of weapons of mass destruction were used to attack Iraq.
So far Venezuela is the only Latin American country to be directly penalized for links with Iran, which is operating an extensive housing development program in Venezuela.
Venezuela's state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. fell foul of U.S. sanctions against Iran for supplying oil products to the country.
Venezuela and Ecuador are Iran's allies in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.