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Bolivia, joining Venezuela, bolsters economic ties with Iran

LA PAZ, Bolivia - Iran's president opened his nation's wallet to Bolivia yesterday during a trip to strengthen ties with leftist leaders in South America, who are increasingly embracing Iran as a counterweight to US influence.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pledged to invest $1 billion in Bolivia over the next five years to help the poor Andean nation tap its vast natural gas reserves, extract minerals, generate more electricity, and fund agricultural and construction projects.

President Evo Morales of Boliva, who joins Venezuela's Hugo Chávez as one of Iran's key allies, called Ahmadinejad's visit historic. The two nations established diplomatic relations for the first time, and Morales pledged they "will work together from this day on, for our people, for life, and for humanity."

He brushed off concerns about close Bolivian ties to a nation Washington says is a sponsor of terrorism, declaring that the "international community can rest assured that Bolivia's foreign policy is dedicated to peace with equality and social justice."

Ahmadinejad's appearance before the UN General Assembly this week exacerbated concerns about Iranian bellicosity, and his South America trip includes time with Venezuela's Chávez, a vocal defender of Iran's nuclear program.

Chávez accuses the United States of trumping up allegations that one of its enemies is pursuing nuclear weapons.

Vice President Alvaro Garcia of Bolivia said his government does not endorse nuclear proliferation and his nation simply wants to build commercial ties with Iran.

Ahmadinejad called Morales a "dear brother" and said his trip will be "the start of deep relations between both governments."

"We'll get rid of the poverty in our lands and give well-being to our peoples, and the people of Bolivia and the people of Iran will emerge victoriously."

Ahmadinejad's trip underscored growing ties to Latin American nations, including Nicaragua and Ecuador, even as the United States tries to isolate him internationally.

"It's Iran's answer to the United States on its own home turf," said Alberto Garrido, a Venezuelan writer and political analyst. "The United States is in the Middle East, so Iran is in Latin America."

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