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Iran's leader courts Latin American leftists

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Bolivia on Thursday as part of the U.S. foe’s drive to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties with leftist Latin American leaders.

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Ahmadinejad and Bolivian President Evo Morales signed cooperation accords on energy and industry, swapping compliments in a lovefest sure to rile U.S. diplomats and the country’s rightist opposition.

“The people of Iran and Bolivia have decided to build their countries together, hand in hand ... they’ve decided to be friends with one another in difficult situations,” Ahmadinejad told a news conference in La Paz, in translated comments.

Ahmadinejad is also due to visit Venezuela on Thursday, where he will meet with President Hugo Chavez, the region’s most outspoken critic of Washington, to discuss a series of energy agreements.

Deeply at odds with the West over its nuclear program, Iran has gained influence in Latin America as anti-U.S. sentiment has risen among leftist leaders such as Chavez and Morales.

Iran, one of the world’s top oil exporters, has antagonized some countries with its program to develop nuclear energy, which Washington says is a cover-up to create atomic weapons.

“Bolivia has the right to have diplomatic relations with Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. 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.

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 investment. They also agreed to spend up to $100 million on technology, trade and industrial promotion, presidential spokesman Alex Contreras said.

A government source said Iran could provide technological and financial help to Bolivia’s key energy sector, mentioning Iranian interest in a natural gas pipeline project.

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

Morales has said the Iranian leader’s visit did not mean La Paz would support a possible Iranian arms buildup.

“Please don’t consider me part of the axis of evil,” Morales told U.S. comedian Jon Stewart during a televised interview on Tuesday.

U.S. President George W. Bush used the term “axis of evil” in 2002 in reference to Iran, North Korea and Iraq, governments he accused of sponsoring terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction.