Iran, Venezuela to begin direct flights

CARACAS, Venezuela_Iran's national airline will begin direct flights to Venezuela next month in another sign of the two nations' increasingly close ties.

Iran Air will operate a weekly, commercial flight linking its capital of Teheran to Caracas in March, the Bolivarian state news agency, or ABN, reported Friday.

Iran Air also opened a new office at the headquarters of Venezuela's state airline Conviasa in Caracas on Friday, ABN said.

Relations between the two countries have tightened under President Hugo Chavez and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who are united in their antagonism to the U.S. government.

Venezuela and Iran plan to jointly produce everything from bricks to bicycles and develop oil fields in Venezuela.

Last month, the oil-rich nations announced a joint US$2 billion (€1.55 billion) fund to finance investments in Venezuela and Iran, as well as projects in third countries seeking to help thwart U.S. domination. The two leaders have spoken of investing in infrastructure, social and energy projects, but have not offered specifics.

A government statement Friday said Chavez would visit Iran this year although a date has not been set. Chavez visited Tehran in July 2006, while Ahmadinejad has since been to Venezuela twice.

Chavez has also become a leading defender of Iran's nuclear program, which the United States and European countries fear could be used to make atomic weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is solely for peaceful energy purposes.