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BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has backed Iran's controversial nuclear programme and accused the West of seeking to punish the two countries for asserting their independence.
Iran faces a possible new round of United Nations sanctions over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment. The West accuses Tehran of trying to build nuclear weapons. Iran says it aims only to generate electricity.
"Be also assured, comrade president, of Zimbabwe's continuous support of Iran's just cause on the nuclear issue," Mugabe said at a banquet he hosted for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who arrived in Harare on Thursday for a two-day visit.
There was no official indication of any link between Ahmadinejad's visit and Iran's nuclear programme but Zimbabwe does hold uranium deposits which have yet to be exploited.
Zimbabwean state media quoted the Iranian president as saying the West was using the U.N. Security Council to exert pressure on his country to abandon its nuclear programme.
"Unfortunately, the United Nations Security Council, which is supposed to serve the whole world, has been used by the powerful to increase pressure on our countries," Ahmadinejad is quoted as saying.
Zimbabwe itself escaped U.N sanctions in 2008 after Mugabe's re-election in a second round poll marred by political violence, which forced his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai to pull out despite outpolling Mugabe in the first round voting.
Mugabe eventually bowed to international pressure and agreed to form a power-sharing government with Tsvangirai, now prime minister, in February 2009.
The Iranian president's visit has widened rifts within the coalition government, with Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party describing Mugabe's decision to invite Ahmadinejad as a "colossal political scandal".
Tsvangirai and officials from his MDC boycotted a welcoming ceremony for the Iranian president. Quoting unnamed government sources, the state-controlled Herald newspaper said the boycott was in solidarity with Western nations opposed to Ahmadinejad's government.
MDC national chairman and speaker of parliament Lovemore Moyo was the only high-ranking official from Tsvangirai's party who attended a trade show opened by Ahmadinejad in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, on Friday.
Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara and Industry and Commerce Minister Welshman Ncube, both from a splinter MDC faction, also attended.
Ahmadinejad made no reference to Iran's nuclear programme in a speech to open the fair, but called for closer economic ties between Harare and Tehran.
"The cooperation between the two peoples should improve," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "The levels of trade and economic cooperation are not at our (potential) capacity."