Iran's leader gets backing in friendly Bolivia

AP News
Posted: Nov 24, 2009 3:54 PM

Iran's president inaugurated an Iranian-funded hospital and two milk-processing plants Tuesday in a goodwill visit in which his leftist host defended Iran's "peaceful" nuclear aspirations.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bolivian President Evo Morales also signed an agreement in which Iran committed itself to help Bolivia investigate industrializing lithium, the lightweight metal used in electric car and other batteries. This poor Andean country possesses half the world's known lithium reserves.

Morales and a military honor guard received Ahmadinejad at the airport, and a small band of Bolivian Muslims hailed the two as they arrived together at the presidential palace

"Evo, Mahmoud, one heart," they cheered.

The Iranian president's strained relations with Washington are shared by Bolivia's first indigenous president, who expelled the U.S. ambassador last year. Ahmadinejad called Morales "a friend and brother" Tuesday and praised the two nations' cooperation "despite the opposition of imperialism," a reference to the United States.

He previously visited in September 2007 as part of his effort to expand commercial and diplomatic ties in South America.

Iran then offered a $1 billion mixture of aid and credit, much of which Morales hopes to use to expand Bolivia's natural gas production, the country's main revenue source.

One agreement they signed Tuesday adds Iran to a list of nations including France, South Korea and Japan that are vying for a role in helping Bolivia commercialize its lithium, which is concentrated in a remote southern salt flat. Another commits Iran to build two dialysis centers.

Morales and Ahmadinejad also penned a joint declaration in which they "defended the right of all nations to the use and development of nuclear energy for peaceful means" and condemned Israeli leaders for "crimes in Gaza and Palestine."

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied allegations by Washington and its European allies that Iran is trying to build atomic weapons. And Bolivia and Venezuela have both denied Israeli allegations that they have supplied uranium.

Ahmadinejad was headed later Tuesday to visit President Hugo Chavez, another close ally and defender of Iran's nuclear program.

During Ahmadinejad's trip to Brazil on Monday, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva urged Western nations to drop threats of punishment over Tehran's nuclear ambitions and negotiate a fair solution with Iran.

Silva also put the onus on Iran, however, urging it to negotiate with the West to find a "just and balanced" resolution to the standoff over its nuclear fuel enrichment activities.

After lunching with Morales, Ahmadinejad inaugurated a hospital and two milk-processing plants in other parts of the country by video conference from the capital, La Paz.

Tehran donated funding for the seven-story Red Crescent hospital and pasteurizing equipment for the plants.

Iran has also given equipment for a state-run TV station, sold Bolivia 700 tractors made in Venezuela and provided financing for a state-run cement plant.


Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Bogota contributed to this report.