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Iran, Venezuela Begin Joint Drilling

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez strengthened an alliance against U.S. influence on Monday, visiting a tractor factory and an oil field to inaugurate a joint drilling operation.

Wearing hardhats, the Venezuelan and Iranian presidents shook hands with oil workers and questioned them on crude exploration at the drilling rigs in Venezuela's Orinoco River belt — believed to be one of the world's largest oil deposits, with roughly 30.7 billion barrels of crude.

Security measures were tight with dozens of Venezuelan soldiers, many armed with assault rifles, standing guard around the drilling rigs, adjacent dirt roads and nearby highways.

"We are joining you so this massive petroleum reserve, the biggest any country has in the world, serves us for the development of our peoples," Chavez said following the ceremony in San Tome, a town about 225 miles southeast of Caracas.

The state-run oil companies of Venezuela and Iran — Petroleos de Venezuela SA and Petropars — are jointly exploring an area of the Orinoco containing estimated reserves of 1.5 billion barrels of oil.

"The message from what occurred today is that revolutionary and independent peoples, with mutual help, are capable of providing for themselves," Ahmadinejad said through an interpreter. "Venezuela and Iran have shown that, together, beyond the reach of U.S. hegemony and imperialism, they can work and progress."

The two leaders were later flown in military helicopters to Ciudad Bolivar in eastern Venezuela, where they visited a joint-venture tractor-assembly factory and inspected the plant's assembly line.

After visiting the factory, which has produced over 1,500 tractors since operations began last year, Ahmadinejad joined Chavez to present local farmers with new tractors and government loans.

"I'm very happy because before we worked our fingers to the bone and that barely provided us with enough to eat," 52-year old farmer Ramon Brito said as Venezuelan folk music boomed from loudspeakers outside the factory. "Now, with the help from Chavez and Iran, we have the tools, faith and hope that we will become big producers."

Monday's tours came a day after Venezuelan and Iranian officials signed a series of accords, including deals to develop oil fields, build factories to produce goods from gunpowder to cement and set up a $2 billion investment fund for the projects.

Chavez and Ahmadinejad, both preparing to travel to New York for this week's U.N. General Assembly, accused Washington of trying to stifle the development of their nations while seeking to dominate international affairs.

"They want to govern the world," said Ahmadinejad, who is backing Venezuela's bid for a U.N. Security Council seat that would give Chavez a platform to battle a U.S. drive for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

Iran insists its nuclear research is aimed solely at peaceful uses despite concerns among U.S. and European governments that it could be trying to develop nuclear weapons.

The United States has sought to block Venezuela's attempt to win the Security Council seat, supporting Guatemala instead ahead of a secret-ballot vote next month.

On Monday, Chavez said the U.S. government "is afraid of Venezuela's voice on the Security Council" because the South American nation would stand up for allies such as Iran and communist-led Cuba against possible aggressions by the United States.

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