Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Wednesday clashed with President Barack Obama over how serious a security threat Iranian ally Venezuela poses to the United States.
Under firebrand leftist leader Hugo Chavez, an outspoken critic of US policy, Venezuela has developed close ties with Washington's foes Cuba and Iran.
In an interview aired Tuesday, Obama said while Chavez's "destabilizing activity" was of concern, "my sense is that what Mr. Chavez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us."
On Wednesday, Romney pounced on the comments, which were given to Miami's Spanish-language America TeVe broadcaster, branding Obama's stance "stunning and shocking."
"It is disturbing to see him downplaying the threat posed to US interests by a regime that openly wishes us ill," the Republican White House hopeful said in a strongly-worded statement, attacking his rival ahead of the November vote.
"Hugo Chavez has provided safe haven to drug kingpins, encouraged regional terrorist organizations that threaten our allies like Colombia, has strengthened military ties with Iran and helped it evade sanctions, and has allowed a Hezbollah presence within his country's borders."
Later, on Fox News, Romney said: "It's an extraordinary admission on the part of this president to be completely out of touch with what's happened in Latin America."
Under fire from the West for its disputed nuclear program, Iran has sought closer political and economic relations with countries far and wide, including many in Latin America, as its standoff with the West drags on.
Chavez, who has criticized tough sanctions on Iran, has visited Tehran more than a dozen times since taking power in 1999 and recently hosted his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
During that visit, the two leaders pledged to battle "imperialism."
The two states also engage in military cooperation and last month Chavez caused a stir when he announced that, with Iranian help, he had made his first drone and planned to soon begin exporting the unmanned aircraft.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt fired back at Romney Wednesday, saying the Republican was "playing into the hands of Chavez by acting like he's 10 feet tall."
"President Obama has refused to be distracted by the outdated rhetoric of people like Hugo Chavez and instead has focused on restoring our nation's standing in Latin America," LaBolt said.
Republican lawmaker Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, came to Romney's defense, saying: "In Chavez, we have a dictator who has systematically crushed democracy within his own country."