LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) - Bolivia on Tuesday denied supplying uranium to Iran, while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dismissed Israeli allegations that the two countries have been aiding Tehran's nuclear program.
Bolivian Mining Minister Luis Alberto Echazu said his country doesn't even produce the radioactive metallic element, though he acknowledged that officials believe the country has some untapped uranium deposits.
"There isn't even a precise geological study of uranium deposits, and much less can there be talk of export" to another country, he said.
A secret Israeli Foreign Ministry report, obtained by The Associated Press on Monday, cites previous Israeli intelligence assessments saying "there are reports that Venezuela supplies Iran with uranium for its nuclear program" and that "Bolivia also supplies uranium to Iran."
Chavez said during a visit to Brazil that it's one more in a list of accusations his government must fight off, including that "we're a paradise for drug trafficking, that we protect terrorists."
"They accuse us of anything," Chavez said. "I saw in the press yesterday... a supposed official document of the Israeli government where it says Venezuela is supporting Iran in the construction of the atomic bomb."
Chavez didn't directly deny the Israeli report's assertion, but he has often joked that critics want to make it appear Venezuela and Iran are producing an "atomic bicycle" together. Iran is helping to produce bicycles and tractors in the South American country among various joint projects.
Bolivian Presidential Minister Juan Ramon Quintana described Israel's intelligence agency as a bunch of incompetent "clowns," and Echazu said the Bolivian Foreign Ministry plans to issue a formal response to the report's assertion.
Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales have built close ties with Iran and have fiercely opposed Israeli and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Both Venezuela and Bolivia broke off ties with Israel in January to protest its offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Chavez has backed Iran's assertion that its nuclear program is purely to produce energy, despite Israel's contention that Iran is building atomic weapons.
Israel's three-page report about Iranian activities in Latin America was prepared before a visit to the region by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who plans to attend a meeting of the Organization of American States in Honduras next week. The report did not specify where the uranium allegedly supplied by the two countries originated.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment, referring questions to Israeli officials. It did say that the U.S. is watching closely for any violations of U.N. resolutions that bar countries from selling sensitive material to Iran.
"All U.N. members are obligated to implement existing U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions on Iran," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said. "We are certainly monitoring for any indication or any actions that might be in breach."
Some analysts doubt that Iran currently is receiving uranium from other countries.
"Iran does not need to import uranium from abroad" at this time, said Farideh Farhi, a researcher at the University of Hawaii who is an expert on Iran's foreign policy. "Iran has uranium deposits itself. There is a real issue about Iran's deposits being large enough to sustain the ambitious enrichment program Iran is envisioning in the future, but at this point this is not an issue."
While defending Iran, Chavez has also expressed interest in starting a nuclear energy program in Venezuela - and Russia has agreed to help under an agreement signed during a November visit by President Dmitry Medvedev.
According to the agreement, published earlier this month in Venezuela's Official Gazette, Russia plans to help Venezuela in the "exploration and exploitation of fields of uranium and thorium, to be used for peaceful purposes."
Russian nuclear agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko said through an interpreter during Medvedev's visit that "we are ready to teach students in nuclear physics and nuclear engineering." He also referred to geological studies and "looking for uranium" in Venezuela. It's unclear when that could begin.
Chavez said during a visit to Tehran last month that his government and Iran have been discussing plans for a joint mining company. He said "Iran has helped us a lot in making a map of Venezuelan mining" - apparently showing known deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals. He didn't elaborate on which minerals Iran would be involved in mining.
Associated Press writers Ian James and Rachel Jones in Caracas, and Matthew Lee in Washington, contributed to this report.