IT'S not surprising that the Obama administration is getting edgy over the increasingly chummy relationship between Iran and Venezuela. The leaders of both countries - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez -- enjoy annoying Washington and find it relatively easy to do so. Yesterday Iran announced that it had asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to call a conference to consider an international ban on attacks on nuclear installations. The motive is obvious - to exacerbate difficulties between the United States and Israel over the latter's threat to attack Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities if diplomatic efforts to stop Tehran's alleged progress towards a nuclear weapon should fail. Iran is within its right to make this request; until it can be proved otherwise what it claims to be its civilian programme is perfectly legal within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Pact. Furthermore, a proposal to protect all nuclear installations from attack is prima facie common sense.

President Chavez works in a different way -- inviting the Russian Navy to carry out exercises using Venezuela's ports, for instance - but he has also changed the political weather in South America. Whereas most Latin American countries were once content to toe the Washington line in return for aid and protection, several now look to Chavez as a more authentic voice. Still, Chavez is living dangerously; his proposal this week to ban golf in Venezuela and to turn all golf courses into parks may be the moment at which Washington has to say “enough is enough”.


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