Ahmadinejad in Caracas on an anti-US tour

CARACAS (AFP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seeking support among Washington’s critics, arrived here Saturday for talks with his ideological “brother” President Hugo Chavez in a decidedly anti-US Latin American tour.

The Iranian president’s regional trip will include visits to Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, all controlled by leftist governments critical of Washington. The visits appear to be a bid to shore up support as Iran faces international pressure from the United States and others over its nuclear programme. Iran contends the programme is for peaceful purposes, but opponents say it masks a weapons programme.

“Welcome to a fighter for just causes, to a revolutionary and a brother,” Chavez told local media after Ahmadinejad’s jet touched down here. In Caracas, the two leaders were expected to sign a series of new trade and economic cooperation agreements.

Ahmadinejad has heaped praise on Chavez for his outspoken support of Iran’s disputed nuclear programme, which US and European governments say is part of a project to build atomic weapons. The Iranian president arrived here at 1330 GMT to military honours and a welcome from Vice President Jorge Rodriguez, while Chavez delivered his state of the nation address before the National Assembly.

Ahmadinejad 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. “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.

“Hugo is my brother,” Ahmadinejad said during his last visit to Venezuela in September, when the two leaders inaugurated a joint venture 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 to the hilt Iran’s right to enrich uranium.

Iran and Venezuela are important players in OPEC and have signed numerous cooperation agreements in the energy sector and other fields.

During his visit to Iran last September, Chavez voiced support for Iran’s nuclear programme and denounced Israeli military operations in Lebanon.

The two presidents also signed deals covering iron and steel production, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, healthcare equipment and munitions, backed by a two billion-dollar bilateral fund.

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