Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, left, embraces Iranian President Mahmoud… (Marcelo Garcia / AFP/Getty…)
TEHRAN -- The Iranian government declared Wednesday as a national day of mourning for the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, praising the leftist firebrand as a foe of imperialism.
In a cable to the Venezuelan presidential office, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Chavez a “martyr” for Venezuela who “bravely and firmly stood against the quest for hegemony of the arrogant power,” the United States.
He cast suspicion on the causes of his illness and praised Chavez effusively as a leader.
“I have no doubt that he will return to Earth alongside Jesus Christ,” as well as Imam Mahdi, a prophesied redeemer in Islam, and “all righteous people, to establish justice, peace and freedom,” Ahmadinejad wrote in a Farsi version of the letter posted online.
The ardent words from Ahmadinejad triggered some backlash among Muslim leaders in Tehran, who felt it was over the top to compare Chavez to such exalted religious figures. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said the president had sent out an incorrect and “overblown” message.
“Mentioning Chavez along with the Twelfth Imam and Jesus Christ is wrong,” Khatami said Wednesday, according to the semiofficial Mehr News Agency. “He could simply send a diplomatic condolence.” The religious references were notably absent from a Spanish version of the letter also posted on the Iranian presidential website.
Seyyed Mehdi Tabatee, a theologian, told another Iranian news website close to reformists that saying Chavez would return alongside the two was “wrong both religiously and legally.”
Ahmadinejad told reporters he would probably attend the funeral in Venezuela.
Tied together by their distaste for Washington, Ahmadinejad and Chavez had forged a warm friendship, hugging and lauding one another on visits. The allies inked deals to fund Latin American projects and established joint business operations in Venezuela, a sign of deepening ties that troubled Western officials.
“When we meet, the devils go crazy,” Chavez joked while with Ahmadinejad last year.
Many reformist Iranians have been skeptical of such overtures, however. The economic investment in Venezuela "has no logical and economic rationality or justification," local analyst Nader Karim Joni told the Los Angeles Times in a telephone interview Wednesday, deriding the praise poured by Ahmadinejad on the late Venezuelan leader as "silly."
"We are paying too much for almost nothing in return," Joni said.
The Iranian president may now look to bolster ties to other sympathetic states in the region. The same day that the Iranian government mourned Chavez, Ahmadinejad called for closer relations with Ecuador, another leftist-led government in Latin America, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
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Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.