Castro calls Iran visit 'great privilege'
By AFSHIN VALINEJAD
Associated Press Writer
TEHRAN, Iran -- (AP) -- Cuban President Fidel Castro described his first visit to Iran -- a fellow revolutionary nation also locked under unilateral U.S. sanctions -- a ``great privilege,'' saying today it would strengthen bonds between the two nations.
President Mohammad Khatami greeted Castro, who appeared at the formal VIP welcome today in a navy suit and tie rather than his usual military attire, with a handshake at the capital's Saadabad Palace. An honor guard stood in the sprawling palace gardens.
``My visit to Iran for me and my nation is a great privilege,'' Iranian state-run television quoted Castro as saying. ``This is a political and cultural trip and I truly believe that the relations of the two countries will be stronger after this trip.''
On receiving Castro, who arrived in Tehran late Monday, Khatami referred to the Iranian revolution 22 years ago that ousted the U.S.-supported shah.
``Our nation has great affection for the people of Cuba, and Mr. Castro's presence here today comes after 22 years of waiting,'' Khatami said.
Later today, Castro is to lay a wreath at the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution who liked to refer to the United States as the ``Great Satan.''
Although Khatami has embarked on a slow rapprochement with Washington, many Iranian officials still refer to the United States as the ``Great Satan.'' Hotel lobbies often are adorned with signs of ``Death to America.''
In Cuba, Castro regularly rails against the United States. Earlier
this month, Castro warned against U.S. ``annexation'' of Latin America
through the creation of a
hemispheric free-trade zone and ridiculed leaders of several countries -- including U.S. President George W. Bush -- who had recently condemned Cuba's human rights record.
The Iran News daily, which often reflects the views of the Foreign
Ministry, said the glue binding Iran and Cuba is their common cause of
opposing ``the hegemonic
policies of the United States.'' Both nations are under unilateral U.S. sanctions and both are accused by Washington of engaging in ``terrorism.''
Noting foreign investment in Cuba's tourist industry and in Iran's energy sector despite U.S. sanctions, the daily said Iran and Cuba are proving to the world that ``the myth of U.S. supremacy is unfounded.''
``This in itself is a great achievement,'' it added.
The Cuban leader arrived in Iran from Algeria; he also was expected to visit Malaysia and Qatar. Cuba's communist government almost never announces Castro's travel schedule in advance because of security concerns.
The 74-year-old Cuban leader rarely visits outside Latin America.
Castro's travels of recent years mainly have been to regional summits in
Latin America and the
Caribbean. Khatami met Castro once in 1998 and again last year when he stopped off in Havana on the way back from an oil summit in Venezuela.
Castro's discussions in Iran were expected to focus on cooperation within the Group of 77 countries and the Non-Aligned Movement. Iran currently heads the G-77, an association of developing countries, and is an active member of NAM.
It was not announced whether Castro would discuss petroleum during
his visit, a leading economic and domestic issue for Cuba, which once relied
heavily on its
Soviet-era allies for fossil fuels. In recent years, Cuba has increased its oil and gas production for domestic consumption, but it remains dependent on fuel imports.
Trade between Cuba and Iran totals about dlrs 100 million annually, concentrated primarily in the areas of agriculture, fishing and biotechnology. The two countries also cooperate in medical and sports training.