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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran President, Starts Latin America Tour In Venezuela (PHOTOS)

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) is welcomed with military honours at Maiquetia international airport in Caracas, on January 8, 2011 where he arrived to start a five-day tour aimed at shoring up ties in Latin America. (Getty)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) is welcomed with military honours at Maiquetia international airport in Caracas, on January 8, 2011 where he arrived to start a five-day tour aimed at shoring up ties in Latin America. (Getty)

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez defended his close ally Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday, saying Iran is facing "U.S. warmongering threats" amid tensions over its nuclear program.

The two leaders met in Caracas on the first leg of a four-nation tour that will also take Ahmadinejad to Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador.

"We are very worried," Chavez said of pressures being put on Iran by the United States and its allies, which he accused of being a threat to peace.

"They present us as aggressors," Chavez said as he received Ahmadinejad at the presidential palace.

"Iran hasn't invaded anyone," he added. "Who has dropped thousands and thousands of bombs ... including atomic bombs?"

Ahmadinejad's visit comes after the U.S. imposed tougher sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, which Washington believes Tehran is using to develop atomic weapons. Chavez and his allies back Iran in arguing the nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.

Adding to the tensions, Iranian state radio reported on Monday that a court in Iran has convicted dual U.S.-Iranian citizen Amir Mirzaei Hekmati of working for the CIA and sentenced him to death.

Neither president mentioned the case.

Chavez accused the U.S. and its European allies of demonizing Iran and using false claims about the nuclear issue "like they used the excuse of weapons of mass destruction to do what they did in Iraq."

Ahmadinejad dismissed the accusations about Iran's nuclear program in general terms.

"They say we're making (a) bomb," the Iranian leader said through an interpreter. "Fortunately, the majority of Latin American countries are alert. Everyone knows that those words... are a joke. It's something to laugh at."

Both leaders also joked that their relationship shouldn't cause any concern.

Ahmadinejad said if they were together building anything like a bomb, "the fuel of that bomb is love."

Chavez played on the same theme, saying: "We's going to work a lot for some bombs, for some missiles, to keep the war going. Our war is against poverty, hunger and underdevelopment."

The Venezuelan leader said in his televised speech that Iranians assistance has helped the South American country build 14,000 homes as well as factories that produce food, tractors and vehicles.

"We will always be together," Ahmadinejad said. Smiling as he put his hand on Chavez's arm, the Iranian leader called the Venezuelan president "the champion of fighting against imperialism."

Government officials signed two agreements promoting industrial cooperation and worker training.

Both Chavez and Ahmadinejad will travel to Nicaragua on Tuesday for the inauguration of newly re-elected President Daniel Ortega.

In Ecuador on Monday, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino defended his government's relations with Iran and said Ecuador recognizes Tehran's right to using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Iran finds itself under increasing pressure in the standoff over its nuclear program, and in response to the latest U.S. sanctions has threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, an important transit route for oil tanker shipments.

The U.N. nuclear agency on Monday confirmed that Iran has begun enriching uranium at an underground bunker to a level that can be upgraded more quickly for use in a nuclear weapon than the nation's main enriched stockpile. That development increases fears among U.S. and European officials about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Chavez's long-running confrontation with Washington also looks set to grow more antagonistic after the U.S. State Department announced, just hours before Ahmadinejad's arrival, that it was expelling Venezuela's consul general in Miami, Livia Acosta Noguera, due to allegations that she discussed a possible cyber-attack against the U.S. government.

The expulsion followed an FBI investigation into accusations contained in a documentary aired by the Spanish-language broadcaster Univision last month. According to the documentary, Acosta discussed the possible cyber-attack while she was previously assigned as a diplomat in Mexico. The documentary was based on recordings of conversations with her and other officials, and also alleged that Cuban and Iranian diplomatic missions were involved.

Chavez called the U.S. action "unjustified, arbitrary" and said his government will consider its response. He called it "an attack against our nation."

The diplomat had already returned to Venezuela in December because "we knew that was going to occur," Chavez said.

Beyond voicing criticism of the U.S. on his tour, Ahmadinejad is also likely to look for ways to use his Latin American alliances to diminish the impact of sanctions on Iran's oil industry, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with consulting firm IHS Global Insight in London.

However, Moya-Ocampos predicted that "Venezuela is going to be very careful not to push its relationship with Iran beyond the U.S. tolerance limits," so as not to risk being hit with more U.S. sanctions. Last year, the U.S. imposed sanctions on state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA for delivering at least two cargoes of oil products to Iran.

Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez told reporters the government had not made any oil-related agreements with Iran.

Asked about the sanctions against Iran and its threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, Ramirez said OPEC, to which both countries belong, could not get involved in the issue.

"Any action that Iran takes in defense of its sovereignty is a matter of Iran," Ramirez said.

The U.S. government has also repeatedly accused Iran of sponsoring terrorism.

Argentina, which has good relations with Venezuela, has warrants out for the arrests of Iran's defense minister and other officials suspected of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization based in Los Angeles, urged Ahmadinejad's hosts to tell Iran that they support Argentina's demands for the extradition of those implicated in the attack. The organization condemned Ahmadinejad for threatening Israel, saying in a statement on Monday that "honoring that trafficker of hatred with impunity involves his hosts as accomplices."

___

Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna, Matthew Lee in Washington, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas contributed to this report.

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