WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton charged Friday that China and Iran have made "quite disturbing" gains in Latin America, the result of Bush administration efforts to isolate its adversaries in the hemisphere.
In a blunt assessment and warning, Clinton said that while the Bush administration was working to make countries such as Venezuela and Cuba "international pariahs," China and Iran were building "very strong economic and political connections" across the region.
"I don't think that's in our interest," she said, appearing before a group of Foreign Service officers and defending the Obama administration's strategy of reaching out to leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Raul Castro.
The involvements cited by Clinton, including a massive new Iranian Embassy in Nicaragua, have been previously known. But her comments represented a new level of concern within the administration and underscored the urgency in the push to overhaul the U.S. profile in Latin America.
"I don't think in today's world, where it's a multipolar world, where we are competing for attention and relationships with the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, that it's in our interest to turn our backs on our own hemisphere," she said.
The growing ties of China and Iran to Latin America have drawn considerable attention in Washington, but opinions have varied on the extent of any threat to the United States.
Several experts on Latin America said they were puzzled that Clinton would group the countries together, given that Iran is seen as a security threat while China has focused on economic ties.
"The Chinese are very aware of the sensitivities and have been very clear about not putting at risk their long-term relationship with America," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank.
Shifter also noted that Clinton's criticism of Iran comes as the administration is offering a diplomatic opening with the Islamic Republic.
Iran's intentions in Latin America long have been cause for concern. Iran has been accused of using its ties there for terrorism, spying and weapons smuggling. Western anti-terrorism officials have believed since the 1990s that Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group, has used Venezuela as a base for operations and intelligence gathering.
Iran's new embassy in Nicaragua also has provoked concern, especially among U.S. policy hawks. A report last year by the Center for Security Policy, a conservative research group in Washington, cited fears that the embassy is to be used as a weapons depot.
Clinton acknowledged the concerns.
"The Iranians are building a huge embassy in Managua -- and you can only imagine what that's for," she said.
Iranian and Latin American officials meet regularly. In April, Chavez visited Tehran. Next week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to visit Brazil, his nation's largest trading partner in the region.
China's trade with Latin America has been soaring, growing more than sevenfold -- to more than $100 billion -- between 2000 and 2007. But actual Chinese investment in the region, about $1.9 billion in 2007, has not lived up to hopes, said David Shambaugh of George Washington University.