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Iran reaches out to Mexico

After strengthening ties with other Latin American countries, Iran pushes for closer ties with Mexico.

Iran has already developed close ties with Venezuela, as demonstrated by this photograph of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Iran July 2, 2007. Will Iran be able to make inroads with Mexico? (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)

SAN ANTONIO, Tex. — While U.S. leaders remain fixated on Mexico’s drug war, Iran has quietly sought to establish closer ties to Mexico, with almost no notice.

Over the last year, Iran has been pushing for an expansion of trade and diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The efforts mirror those Iran's leaders have made in Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, whose leaders employ anti-U.S. rhetoric. Iran's close relationships with those three countries have prompted alarms to ripple through the U.S. national security establishment in recent years.

Some foreign policy experts see nothing nefarious in Iran's reaching out to another oil producing state, while some counterterrorism experts believe the U.S. should be more vigilant in monitoring any Iranian attempt to establish closer ties with Mexico.

It's just too close, they argue, not to pay careful attention.

In late February, Iran’s ruling Islamic clerics quietly sent emissaries to Mexico City with a proposal to expand relations in the “political, economic and cultural arenas” for the first time since the Shah was overthrown in 1979. According to a Feb. 27 press release posted online by Mexico’s department of foreign relations, Secretary Maria Lourdes Aranda Bezaury met with Tehran’s deputy foreign minister for the Americas, Ali Reza Salari.

More meetings are planned.

The response to Iran's actions in the region weren't always so muted. Past Iranian overtures elsewhere in Latin America — most recently in Nicaragua — drew quick U.S. condemnation, along with publicly aired suspicions that Iran's motives included the desire to project a terrorism threat in America's backyard.

In contrast, Iran's outreach in Mexico has proceeded with scarcely any public mention. The overtures took place (by design or not) amid the distractions of visits to Mexico by high-ranking U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano, to discuss supporting Mexico in its war against rampaging drug cartels.

"This is the first I've probably ever heard about this," said a State Department official closely involved in bilateral diplomacy and high-level American visits to Mexico. "And to tell you the truth it's probably something that's not going to come up (during the official U.S. diplomatic visits) — unless it's somehow forced onto the agenda."

Andy Lane, a State Department spokesman in Washington D.C., appeared unaware of the Iranian proposal when a GlobalPost reporter called on the eve of Clinton's Mexico visit.

After seeking the administration's response, Lane called back: "Many countries in the hemisphere have relations with Iran, and it is their sovereign right to pursue relations with any country that they choose." Lane said he was not authorized to elaborate.

The response may reflect President Barack Obama's desire for a different approach to Iran than his predecessor. The Obama administration's approach has been marked so far by diplomatic outreach to dissuade the clerical regime from pursuing a nuclear program that Europe and many of Iran's neighbors, including Israel, fear is aimed at producing nuclear weapons.