Ahmadinejad tours Latin America

CARACAS (AFP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is locked in a tense standoff with the United States, arrived Saturday in Venezuela for talks with his ideological “brother,” President Hugo Chavez.

His regional swing will also include visits to Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, countries controlled by leftist governments critical of Washington. In Caracas, the two leaders were expected to sign a series of new trade and economic cooperation agreements. “Iran and Venezuela are two important allies on a global level, the two countries have important industrial and oil projects, which we will follow up in this trip,” Ahmadinejad said before flying from Tehran, according to the state-run IRNA agency.

Ahmadinejad, who arrived here at 1330 GMT, has heaped praise on Chavez for his outspoken support of Iran’s disputed nuclear programme, which the US and European governments say is part of a project to build atomic weapons.

The Iranian president made no immediate statement on arrival.

Facing sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council over its uranium enrichment work and the threat of international isolation, Iran is keen to demonstrate it has backing among a number of leftist leaders in Latin America. Chavez is the most vocal cheerleader in Latin America for Iran and its hardline president, with both men calling each other “brother” and relishing their status as fierce opponents of Washington’s influence. “Hugo is my brother,” Ahmadinejad said during his last visit to Venezuela in September, when the two leaders inaugurated a joint oil well. “Hugo is the champion of the fight against imperialism.” In September 2005, Venezuela was alone in opposing a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that found Iran in violation of nuclear safeguards. Since then, Chavez has backed Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Iran and Venezuela are both important players in OPEC and have signed numerous cooperation agreements in the energy sector and other fields.

During a visit to Iran last September, Chavez came out in support of Iran’s nuclear programme, as well as denouncing Israeli military operations in Lebanon. The two presidents also signed deals covering iron and steel production, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals and healthcare equipment, and munitions. While Ahmadinejad sought to cultivate Latin American allies, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to the Middle East to rally Arab support for a new US strategy in Iraq and to counter Iran’s alleged interference in Iraq.

Before her departure, Rice warned that the United States would not be passive in the face of what she called Iran’s “regional aggression.” “I think you will see that the United States is not going to simply stand idly by and let these activities continue,” she said.

After his one-day visit to Caracas, Ahmadinejad plans to head to Managua for talks with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a cold war foe of the United States who was sworn in on Wednesday.

Ortega was the former Marxist leader of the leftist front that ousted a US-backed dictator in 1979 and seized private assets, distributed land to poor farmers and battled US-financed Contra rebels throughout the 1980s.

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