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Originally published May 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 22, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Belarus forges deal to tap Iranian oilfield

Iran granted Belarus greater access to oil reserves as the leaders of the countries, both at odds with the United States, met Monday to...

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus — Iran granted Belarus greater access to oil reserves as the leaders of the countries, both at odds with the United States, met Monday to cement what Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko called a "strategic partnership."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the start of a two-day visit to this former Soviet republic, hailed the "huge potential" for cooperation between the two nations.

Underscoring that partnership, Iran gave Belarus long-discussed access to the Jofeir oil field, which is near the Iraq border and could produce up to 30,000 barrels a day once operational, according to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

The two sides also "emphasized the necessity of developing mutual cooperation in different sectors of the oil-gas industry, creating an oil-refinery facility, developing oil and gas fields, and building an underground natural-gas-storage facility in Iran," according to a joint statement released after the two leaders met.

Lukashenko said the crude from Jofeir would either be refined in Iran or simply extracted by Belarus and sold on world markets.

Ahmadinejad is the latest world leader to visit Lukashenko, an authoritarian ruler who has been courting other opponents of the United States. A year ago, Lukashenko hosted Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, another vocal U.S. critic who also leads a country with substantial oil and gas reserves.

Lukashenko is widely referred to in the West as "Europe's last dictator" for quashing opposition and independent media in Belarus, where the largely Soviet-style state-controlled economy is heavily reliant on cheap Russian energy supplies.

In recent months, Moscow has increased prices and tightened shipment conditions for oil and gas exports to Belarus, pinching the economy.

Lukashenko visited Iran in November, where 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 Tehran'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 European Union travel bans and financial sanctions for strangling freedoms.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated Monday that the standoff over Iran's nuclear program should be resolved through dialogue.

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"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," 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.

U.S. and Iranian ambassadors are to meet in Baghdad next week to discuss the security situation in Iraq.

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