Venezuela's Chavez: Iran not seeking nuclear weapons

Venezuela 's President Hugo Chavez said Monday that he does not believe that Iran 's nuclear program is a front for secret efforts to produce an atomic bomb. "I don't believe that the United States or anyone else has the right ... to prohibit that a country has nuclear energy," Chavez said at a news conference with London 's mayor. "How many countries in the world have nuclear energy? Unfortunately, Venezuela doesn't have it."

Chavez added, "I'm certain the Iranians are not developing a nuclear weapon." Chavez, who is on a two-day visit to London aimed at energizing Europe's social movements, also repeated a warning that any military strike against Iran would send the price of crude oil soaring above US$100 a barrel. The current rate is around US$70 a barrel. The Venezuelan leader, who has frosty relations with Washington , said Monday that such an attack on Iran would not prompt Venezuela to reduce its oil deliveries to the United States .

The world should do everything it can to avoid such a conflict, he said, adding that " Europe has an important role to play." Chavez also announced a plan to send heating oil to poor people in London for free or at discount prices. He said that the Venezuelan government should meet with the representatives of two refineries in Britain .

On Saturday, Chavez announced at a gathering of non-governmental groups and social movements in Vienna , Austria , that he wants to provide cheap heating oil for low-income Europeans in a deal similar to one he worked out this past winter to help needy Americans.

The deals have created controversy in the United States , with some saying Chavez was using them to take a jibe at U.S. President George W. Bush. Others applauded him for stepping in where the big oil companies refused. Chavez appeared alongside London Mayor Ken Livingstone after a closed-door meeting with representatives of Britain 's' Trade Union Congress, which represents nearly 7 million workers.

At a rally with Livingstone and left-leaning lawmakers and activists on Sunday, Chavez warned that a U.S. attack on Iran would trigger an enormous military escalation in the Middle East . He also called Bush a "terrorist" and said the Iraq war was the " Vietnam of the 21st century." U.S. officials say they want a negotiated solution to the standoff over Iran 's nuclear program, which Washington believes is aimed at developing atomic weapons. But the Bush administration refuses to rule out military force as a last resort. Tehran says its program is purely to produce power.

Later Monday, Chavez was to dine with guests including Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning playwright, and actress and activist Bianca Jagger, and later give a lecture at an institute promoting cultural and commercial ties between Britain and Latin America .

However, he is not scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair or any senior British government officials. Relations between the two governments have soured since February, when Blair said in Parliament that Venezuela "should abide by the rules of the international community" and that he would like to see Venezuela 's close ally Cuba become a "functioning democracy." Chavez has called Blair a "pawn of imperialism" for his alliance with Bush, reports the AP.

N.U.