HARARE (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a visit to Zimbabwe on Thursday condemned by President Robert Mugabe’s opponents as a meeting of despots which could further isolate Harare.
Ahmadinejad, whose government is pursuing a nuclear programme despite threats of more United Nations sanctions, was invited by Mugabe to open Zimbabwe’s annual trade fair.
There was no official indication of any link between the two-day visit and Iran’s nuclear programme, but Zimbabwe does hold uranium deposits which have yet to be exploited.
Zimbabwean state media said Ahmadinejad’s visit was part of a drive to strengthen ties between countries at odds with the West.
Ahmadinejad was met at Harare’s international airport by Mugabe, cabinet ministers and diplomats, amid singing and chants from hundreds of Zimbabwean Muslims waving Iranian flags.
Mugabe’s old foe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, and ministers from his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) did not attend the welcoming ceremony.
The MDC has called the visit a “colossal political scandal” and it could increase tensions in the power-sharing government set up last year to try to end a decade of political crisis.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) attacked Ahmadinejad over his record on human rights and other issues.
“He has made his reputation as a warmonger, a trampler of human rights, an executioner of those with dissenting voices and leader of questionable legitimacy,” it said in a statement.
The party said Ahmadinejad’s visit would send the wrong message about Zimbabwe at a time it was trying to show the world it was working to restore democracy. Elections won by Mugabe in 2008 were condemned around the world.
“Inviting the Iranian strongman to an investment forum is like inviting a mosquito to cure malaria,” it said.
Government media said Ahmadinejad’s visit was part of a drive to strengthen relations between countries targeted by Western powers.
“These countries have declared Zimbabwe a pariah state and Iran an ‘axis of evil’ for daring to defend the interests of the citizens and scuttling the West’s bid to plunder the resources of our two nations,” said the official Herald newspaper.
“The West’s neo-colonial agenda should only make us stronger,” it added.
Mugabe and his top officials face Western travel restrictions aimed at trying to force change.
Iran faces a possible new round of U.N. sanctions over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment. The West accuses Tehran of trying to build nuclear weapons. Iran says it aims only to generate electricity.
Zimbabwean and Iranian ministers discussed cooperation ahead of Ahmadinejad’s visit, including on energy, but the focus was on coal and hydroelectric power rather than nuclear energy.
Northern Zimbabwe has uranium deposits, but no exploration contracts have been awarded so far and the size of the deposits has not been made public. The state mining company has formed a joint venture with a Chinese firm to explore for uranium.
Mugabe and Ahmadinejad are expected to witness the signing of agreements, including one for a tractor assembling plant.
“While we understand Mr Mugabe’s shared values with Ahmadinejad ... we call upon the inclusive government to desist from associating our peace-loving country with despots,” the MDC said.
Additional reporting by Cris Chinaka and Nelson Banya, Editing by Giles Elgood