Bolivia Seeking to Expand Ties with Iran

A04140342.jpgTEHRAN (FNA)- Bolivian President Evo Morales said he’s seeking investment from Iran, Russia and Venezuela to boost natural gas output amid worsening relations with the US.

Bolivia, with the second-biggest gas reserves in South America, is in talks with Iran and Venezuela to build a $10 billion petrochemicals complex, and has signed a framework agreement for investment by Russia’s OAO Gazprom, Morales said in an interview with Bloomberg in New York on Thursday.

Morales, 48, at odds with the US over his alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said he expects the US to eliminate his country’s preferences on $648 million of trade.

Morales is also seeking to replace investment from Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, which has cut off new capital in response to Morales’s demands for revised contracts and nationalizations.

“We’re betting on a huge petrochemicals investment, that will of course be integrated, including exploration and production,” Morales said during the interview at the Bolivian mission to the United Nations. US “preferential trade status isn’t a gift. Just because we aren’t pro-Yankee, they scrutinize us. They can go right ahead, we are prepared”.

The president repeated threats that he’ll revoke gas concessions of companies that fail to invest in new capacity. In May, Bolivia spent $43.1 million to take over four energy companies, and last year took control of Petroleo Brasileiro SA’s refineries. The plants process liquids associated with natural gas and supplied all of Bolivia’s gasoline and most of its other vehicle fuels. Petrobras natural gas fields continue to supply gas to Brazil.

“If the concessionaries don’t want to invest, we’ll take back those concessions and invest with Venezuela and Iran,” said Morales, who wore a black suit with a collarless jacket embroidered in an indigenous Bolivian style.

The country has “mega-projects” that await funding and need to get done, he said.

Morales said representatives from Iran will be conducting “technical studies” to determine how to move ahead with the petrochemicals project.

Investment in the oil and gas industry in Bolivia fell to $149 million last year during a period of record energy prices from a peak of $580.8 million in 1999.

Morales, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with a referendum on a new constitution to bolster the central government’s power and reduce tax revenue for the provinces.

“Private investment has really not been coming in,” said Susan Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. “That doesn’t mean that the Chinese or the Venezuelans — basically the countries they would be using — couldn’t bring in government investments.”

The president said he doesn’t think the country is headed toward a civil war, and said he won’t agree to any changes demanded by the opposition for the new constitution.

Morales said a meeting of the Union of South American Nations at the UN to discuss the Bolivian conflict shows the region can resolve its problems without US intervention.

Morales expelled US Ambassador Philip Goldberg earlier this month, accusing him of holding private meetings with opposition leaders who are supporting the opposition’s autonomy drive. Goldberg said it’s normal for an envoy to meet with all political parties in any country. The US State Department said it would offer its citizens in Bolivia flights out of the country.

“This has been an attempted coup d’état,” Morales said on Thursday.

Bolivia’s widening rift with the US reinforces its commitment to the socialist, anti-US alliance led by Chavez. Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state oil company, will begin exploring for oil and gas in two areas of Bolivia next month, Morales said.

“The space between Morales and Chavez becomes a lot narrower if the US follows policies that essentially punish the Bolivian government,” said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy research group in Washington.

“What this does is I think undercut those in the US government who have been promoting greater engagement with the Morales government. It strengthens the hard liners,” he added.

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