Iranian president courts Latin American leftists

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LA PAZ/CARACAS, Sep 28 (Reuters) US foe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad courted leftist Latin American leaders, visiting Bolivia and Venezuela to strengthen ties in a region where anti-American sentiment is on the rise.

Ahmadinejad said the two host nations, as well as others in the area that are led by leftists, such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador, were united with Iran in a worldwide revolutionary movement.

''When we stand together, without doubt we multiply our powers,'' he said yesterday in a speech in Caracas with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at his side.

Deeply at odds with the West over its nuclear program, Iran has won influence in Latin America as leftists have gained some momentum in the region and railed against Washington on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to free trade to climate change.

This week at the United Nations, Ahmadinejad defended Iran's nuclear development as major powers debated imposing further sanctions to isolate the Islamic republic for refusing to curb its activities.

Iran says its programs are to generate electricity. The United States accuses it of enriching uranium in pursuit of an atomic bomb, raising fears the West might use military force to thwart Iran's ambitions if diplomacy fails.

Chavez is also a US antagonist. He skipped the UN meeting in New York this time but a year ago he mocked President George W Bush as the devil in his speech to the General Assembly.

PRAISE FOR STATESMANSHIP Chavez, who says Iran's nuclear programs are peaceful, praised his visitor for showing brave statesmanship in leading the struggle against the US ''empire.'' ''We felt like you were our representative,'' he said.

Bolivian President Evo Morales also showered Ahmadinejad with compliments in a show sure to rile Washington.

''Bolivia has the right to have diplomatic relations with Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the West Asia. We will never promote war ... but nor do we accept that in the name of peace, the criteria of the strongest (nation) prevails,'' Morales said, in an apparent reference to the United States.

Bolivia's first indigenous leader, Morales often lashes out at what he calls US imperialism and accuses Washington of funding the political opposition, which US officials deny.

For years, Venezuela and Iran have been signing scores of accords ranging from car and tractor factories to agreements giving Tehran access to Venezuelan oil fields. Venezuelan is also supplying gasoline to Iran as it struggles with domestic rationing.

The Bolivian-Iranian cooperation is nascent. But Bolivian officials say Iran can help their country better exploit its vast natural gas reserves, at a time when the state-run energy company is struggling to position itself at the helm of the nationalized energy industry.

The two governments agreed to design a five-year industrial cooperation plan with a 1 billion dollars investment. They also agreed to spend up to 100 million dollars on technology, trade and industrial promotion, Bolivia's presidential spokesman Alex Contreras said.

''The people of Iran and Bolivia have decided to build their countries together, hand in hand,'' Ahmadinejad said.

REUTERS SG RK0930

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