KAMPALA, Uganda – Iran's president is in Africa this week to build alliances to evade stronger U.N. sanctions for his country's nuclear program, ease its international isolation and strengthen its economy.
Both Zimbabwe and Uganda, the two countries President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is visiting, have something to offer.
Iran has been under harsh criticism from Western nations for pressing ahead with uranium enrichment programs it says are to produce nuclear energy. The West fears the militant Islamic state could develop nuclear weapons.
"Iran hopes to persuade non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, such as Uganda, to vote against new sanctions or at least abstain from the vote," said Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Rand Corp. "Zimbabwe's isolation from the West also appeals to Iran, which is coming under stronger pressure due to its ongoing nuclear program."
In Uganda, Ahmadinejad will discuss his country's nuclear program with President Yoweri Museveni. Uganda has not yet ruled out the possibility it could vote for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, said Tomale Miaundi, a spokesman for Museveni.
Ahmadinejad is expected to personally make his case after he lands in Uganda on Friday after a two-day trip to Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe urged him to remain resolute in defiance of the West.
In Uganda, the Iranian leader also finds a potential business partner just beginning to tap its oil resources. Oil-rich Iran is in the running to build an oil refinery for the African country. It's also built a housing complex with thousands of units and is looking at building a tractor assembly plant and a beef cannery.
Earlier Friday, Ahmadinejad opened a trade fair in Zimbabwe, where he castigated Western nations, saying their "bad behavior" had enslaved Africans.
"Some oppressive and arrogant states deny people their rights. Today, they are trying to possess and control world resources," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "They want to hinder the way to scientific and development improvements in our countries."
Ahmadinejad arrived at the fair in the city of Bulawayo with Mugabe in a vintage British colonial era Bentley limousine and inspected a guard of honor. Ahmadinejad was the first leader from outside Africa to open the exposition since Zimbabwe won independence from Britain in 1980. The first colonial Bulawayo fair 50 years ago was opened by British royalty, conveyed to the site in a similar car.
Iran is the largest participant at the fair. Many traditional Western exhibitors and local industries have stayed away from the annual trade fair, once a showcase of regional goods and products, because Zimbabwe's economy has tanked under Mugabe.
Ahmadinejad said Iran is interested in Africa's markets and could find like-minded leaders in Africa who face problems with the West. Zimbabwe and Iran say Iran has proposed assembling tractors in Zimbabwe and that the two countries have agreed to set up a joint investment company to help develop industry, energy, mining, water management and social and financial services.
At a state dinner Thursday night, Mugabe said both Zimbabwe and Iran are being targeted by the West because of how they want to manage their own natural resources.
"We remain resolute in defending Zimbabwe's right to exercise it sovereignty over its natural resources. We have equally supported Iran's right to peaceful use of nuclear energy as enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty," Mugabe said.
Zimbabwe and Iran say Iran has proposed assembling tractors in Zimbabwe and that the two countries have agreed to set up a joint investment company to help develop industry, energy, mining, water management and social and financial services.
Associated Press reporters Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya, Angus Shaw in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and Chengetai Zvauya in Harare, Zimbabwe contributed to this report.