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Iran's Ahmadinejad expected in Belarus, latest U.S. foe to visit

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived Monday in Belarus, an isolated ex-Soviet republic whose authoritarian president has been courting other vehement opponents of the United States.

During his two-day visit, Ahmadinejad is to meet with President Alexander Lukashenko and tour Belarusian enterprises. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said last week that the main issues to be discussed during the visit concerned energy, trade and science.

Lukashenko, who visited Iran in November, is widely referred to in the West as "Europe's last dictator" for his stifling of government opponents and independent news media in the nation of 10 million, whose economy remains largely under Soviet-style state control.

Ahmadinejad is locked in a standoff with the West over Iran's nuclear program, which the United States and other nations fear is a front for an effort to develop atomic weapons. He praised the visiting Lukashenko in November as a "brave and powerful" leader for opposing U.S. policies.

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 as punishment for strangling freedoms.

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. Belarus has close ties to neighboring Russia, but they have been frayed in recent years by disputes over energy prices and supplies.

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