CARACAS (AFP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Caracas Thursday for talks with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, following a brief trip to Bolivia, another anti-US ally in South America.
Chavez and fellow leftist President Evo Morales, of Bolivia, both support Iran's controversial nuclear program and, like Ahmadinejad, are virulent critics of the US administration.
The two South American nations have reached a number of trade and aid agreements with Iran, particularly in the energy sector.
In La Paz, Ahmadinejad and Morales signed a joint statement recognizing "the rights of developing nations to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."
Iran rejects US charges that it is trying to build atomic weapons under the guise of its civilian nuclear program and insists it is entitled to pursue uranium enrichment as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Ahmadinejad and Morales also signed a number of bilateral agreements, including 100 million dollars in Iranian financing for projects in the South American country.
Morales' meeting with Ahmadinejad had raised eyebrows in Washington, and the US ambassador in La Paz expressed concerns over Bolivia's warming relations with Iran.
It also drew objections from Bolivian politicians.
"It is of concern that a head of state questioned for his nuclear activities and support of terrorism should come on a state visit," said former Bolivian president Jorge Quiroga. "Iran represents the greatest threat of nuclear proliferation on the planet."
Bolivia, one of Latin America's poorest countries, recently re-established diplomatic ties with Iran, a country that is under UN-imposed sanctions for its refusal to heed ultimatums to suspend uranium enrichment.
Earlier this week, Chavez poked fun at critics of his strong ties with Ahmadinejad.
"They will say I am plotting with Iran to threaten the world, that we will build an atomic bomb," he said in a weekly televised address on Sunday.
Chavez insisted Ahmadinejad is a man "who respects international peace."
"The president, my friend Ahmadinejad, is an extraordinary human being, who believes in God and is very humble," the Venezuelan leader said.
It is the Iranian leader's third trip to Venezuela since he took office in 2005.
The two Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members have signed accords over eight billion dollars, mainly in the oil and energy sectors.
When he visited Iran in July, Chavez set the foundation stone for a petrochemichal complex in Asaluyeh. A similar bilateral venture is planned in Venezuela.
The Iranian leader's mini-tour of South America follows his visit to New York, where he addressed the UN General Assembly and delivered a speech at Columbia University.
Ahmadinejad's New York visit drew vocal protests despite his efforts to tone down the controversy over his country's nuclear ambitions.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, he insisted the controversy over Iran's nuclear ambitions "is closed as a political issue," and added it should be handled "within the legal framework" and under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog.
But he also slammed the "unlawful and political impositions" of the United States and its allies -- a reference to UN Security Council demands that it halt uranium enrichment.
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