TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's president promised Belarus access to its vast oil reserves Monday as he and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko pledged to cement a "strategic partnership" between their two countries — countries at odds with the European Union and the United States.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who arrived in this ex-Soviet republic on Monday, also hailed what he said was the "huge potential (for cooperation)" between the two nations.
"The strengthening of relations between Belarus and Iran fosters support for regional and global security," Ahmadinejad said in televised comments, speaking through an interpreter.
Belarus, Lukashenko said, is "ready for cooperation in all directions."
"Relations between Belarus and Iran have reached the level of strategic partnership," he said according to the presidential press service.
Underscoring that partnership, Lukashenko said Iran had granted Belarus access to the Jofeir oil field — a field near the border with Iraq that could produce up to 30,000 barrels a day once operational, according to news reports. Lukashenko said the crude would be either be refined in Iran or simply extracted by Belarus and sold on world markets.
"Our specialists have researched (the field) and our prepared today to extract oil on Iranian territory," he said.
"The president also spoke about the extraction and refining of natural gas. I am grateful for this exceptional support for our country and our economy," he said.
Ahmadinejad, who led a delegation including the foreign and commerce ministers and an Iranian auto company executive, is the latest world leader to visit Lukashenko, an authoritarian ruler who has been courting other vehement opponents of the United States.
Lukashenko is widely referred to in the West as "Europe's last dictator" for quashing opposition and independent media in Belarus, where the economy remains largely under Soviet-style state control and heavily reliant on cheap Russian energy supplies.
During Lukashenko's visit to Iran in November, Ahmadinejad praised the Belarusian as a "brave and powerful" leader for opposing U.S. policies.
A hard-liner who became president in 2005, Ahmadinejad is locked in a standoff with the West over his country's nuclear program, which the United States and other nations fear is a front for an effort to develop atomic weapons.
Iran is under U.N. Security Council sanctions over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, while Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials have been hit with U.S. and EU travel bans and financial sanctions as punishment for strangling freedoms.
Both Ahmadinejad and Lukashenko also appeared to take a swipe at the United States.
"We hold the opinion that there should be a balance of power ... in the world. We state our opposition to a unipolar world and to any country's effort to exert influence on another," Ahmadinejad said.
A year ago, Lukashenko hosted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, another vocal U.S. critic, who made Belarus the first stop on a tour that also took him to Russia, Iran and Vietnam.
During the two-day visit, Ahmadinejad was expected to tour Belarusian enterprises and a national library. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said last week that the main issues to be discussed during the visit concerned energy, trade and science.
Meanwhile, Russia's foreign minister reiterated that the standoff over Iran's nuclear program should be resolved through dialogue.
"We consider any attempts to isolate Tehran or to use the situation surrounding Iran's nuclear program to achieve any other goals ... to be extremely counterproductive and shortsighted," Sergey Lavrov said in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Russia has used its clout in the U.N. Security Council to water down Western-proposed sanctions against Iran and has warned the United States that overly harsh measures could backfire by deepening Tehran's defiance.