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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

It's Venezuela and Iran v US

Simon Romero, Caracas
August 22, 2006

VENEZUELA has long cultivated ties with Middle Eastern governments, but its recent engagement of Iran has become a defining element in its effort to build an alliance to curb US influence in developing countries.

In a visit late last month to Tehran by President Hugo Chavez and his Oil Minister, Rafael Ramirez, the two countries agreed to jointly produce nearly a dozen products, including crude oil and medicines.

In a further sign that their ties have taken on a new dimension, the two countries are speaking in a more unified voice in their criticism of Israel and the US.

The strengthening of ties has turned Iran into Venezuela's closest ally outside Latin America, adding clout to Mr Chavez's efforts within OPEC to increase revenue by limiting oil exports. Venezuela has also become the most vociferous defender of Iran's nuclear program at a time when Iran feels increasingly isolated.

"We stand by Iran at every moment, in any situation," Mr Chavez said in Tehran after receiving the golden High Medallion of the Islamic Republic from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Venezuela, Syria and Cuba were the only countries to oppose referring Iran to the UN Security Council at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in February.

Iranian investment in Venezuela is now climbing fast and exemplifies Venezuela's move to reshape its foreign policy and distance itself from the US by reaching out to countries on the margins of American influence, including Belarus, Zimbabwe and Cuba.

Hundreds of tractors bound for Iran are already rolling off an assembly line at a plant in Venezuela's interior, and Khodro, the Iranian car manufacturer, plans to produce 5000 Samand sedans a year at a factory near Caracas.

Petropars, the Iranian oil company, said it could invest as much as $A5.2 billion in petroleum ventures in Venezuela.

Alberto Garrido, a historian who is writing a book on Venezuela's ties to Muslim countries, said Mr Chavez had "defined the strategic alliance with Iran as a means with which to counter American power".

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