Chavez warns US off attacking Iran


Tue, May 16, 2006 - Page 6

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday that a US attack on Iran over its nuclear program would trigger an enormous military escalation in the Middle East and that oil prices would soar to at least US$100 a barrel.

Chavez said a US military strike on Iran would provoke an Iranian attack on US ally Israel, triggering a wider conflict in the region. The Venezuelan leader, speaking in central London during a two-day visit, also cautioned that the middle class would have to pay more for gasoline.

"If the United States attacks Iran, among other things, my Eng-lish friends and the middle-class ... should park their vehicles because oil could reach US$100 a barrel or more," Chavez told a packed community center in central London in a speech that lasted for more than three hours.

He said Iran would be forced to cut oil production in the event of a US attack, which he said would be "a threat against us all."

Chavez, who called US President George W. Bush a "terrorist," also criticized the war in Iraq, calling it the "Vietnam of the 21st century."

"If they attack Iran I think it will be far worse than it was in Iraq," Chavez told an audience of some 500 British lawmakers and left-leaning activists.

"The United States doesn't know what it's doing in Iraq: There's no government and there's civil war," he said.

US officials say they prefer a negotiated solution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, which Washington believes is aimed at developing atomic weapons. Tehran says its program is to produce power. Washington says it does not rule out the use of military force as a last resort.

Chavez is on a visit to London aimed at energizing Europe's social movements.

He was greeted in an auditorium at a community center by mostly young activists waving Venezuelan flags, beating drums and tambourines and holding signs welcoming him.

Chavez showed up about an hour late, but Latin music pumping from speakers warmed up the crowd -- some wearing red berets -- with many singing along to a salsa tune about Chavez.

The gathering, organized by maverick London Mayor Ken Livingstone, a vocal Chavez supporter, was the first event during a packed schedule. He was to meet with trade union officials yesterday, hold a news conference at city hall and have lunch with Livingstone, officials said.

Other guests at the lunch include Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning playwright, and actress and activist Bianca Jagger.

He was also scheduled to give a lecture at an institute promoting cultural and commercial ties between Britain and Latin America.

Chavez will not meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair or any senior British government officials during his visit, which one political analyst pointed to as a sign of the tensions between the two governments.

"It's certainly a sign of quite a frictional situation between two countries," said Sam Hardy, a researcher at Chatham House think tank. "Chavez is going to be in London for two days." It seems "that he should meet with a high-ranking official."

Tensions between the two governments have been escalating since February, when Blair told legislators in the House of Commons 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."