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Friday, June 23, 2006

Iran seeks links with Venezuela

The GUARDIAN: Iran is pursuing increased political and economic cooperation with Venezuela and Sudan as part of a series of calculated foreign policy moves that looks certain to exacerbate an already tense stand-off with the Bush administration.

Faced by growing pressure from the US, Britain and other European countries over its nuclear activities, Tehran is anxious to win international support for its position. High-level meetings have been held in recent weeks with Russia, China and numerous Arab and Muslim states.

"We have intensified our diplomatic activity to explain the situation to other countries," Hamid-Reza Asefi, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, told the Guardian.

But Iranian cooperation and investment in Venezuela, which is led by George Bush's tormentor-in-chief, President Hugo Chávez, and new business ventures with Sudan, where the US has said genocide is taking place, may be viewed as a bridge too far in Washington. It regards all three countries as "rogue" states.

"Our relationship with Venezuela has improved a lot," Mr Asefi said. "We have good cooperation in construction, oil and gas, and in infrastructure projects. Our people are busy there making houses, roads, dams and in transport."

There were about 100 Iranians working in Venezuela, Mr Asefi said, providing "know-how and knowledge". Both countries are significant oil producers and members of Opec. Iranian officials have estimated that actual and planned investment in Venezuela could ultimately total $9bn (£5bn).

Mohsen Shaterzadeh, deputy industries and mines minister, said this week that the two countries had finalised an agreement to build a giant car plant in Venezuela. Iran will have a 51% stake in the project.

Tractors are another of Iran's strengths. Mohsen Khadem Arab-Baghi, who heads the Iran Tractor Manufacturing Company, said the company is expected to make up to 30,000 tractors by March 2007. Though its products are exported to 30 countries, "our greatest target market is Venezuela, which accounts for $85m of our tractor exports," he said.

The US slapped trade sanctions on Venezuela two months ago, including a ban on the sale of spare parts for F-111 fighter jets. In retaliation Mr Chávez threatened to sell the planes to other countries, including Iran. Mr Asefi said Iran has "no plans" to buy the aircraft.

In an apparent provocation aimed at Washington, Mr Chávez has also proposed collaboration on nuclear energy research with Iran. Mr Asefi said the two countries were cooperating on scientific research in medicine and agriculture but not in the nuclear field. The US believes Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge it denies.

Iran's relations with Sudan took a significant step forward on Wednesday when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met the Sudanese government's special envoy, General Salah Abdullah Mohammad, and minister for international cooperation, Saleh Hudeib Al-Tijani, in Tehran.

Mr Ahmadinejad said: "Tehran and Khartoum should enhance their current trade volume." He added that Iranians had "always supported Muslim and oppressed peoples in the world". It was not known whether the discussions covered the crisis in Darfur, where tens of thousands have died, or the Sudanese government's recent refusal to allow UN peacekeepers into the area.

Already close relations between Iran and Syria have also been upgraded following a visit to Damascus by Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister. Defence ministers from the two countries agreed last week to increase military cooperation.

"Iran and Syria can be good role models for all Muslim countries," said Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, Iran's defence minister. "Both countries believe there is no need for foreign troops in the region." He said Iran would continue its research into missile technology and new missile systems.
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