Iranian war games being staged at a time of heightened tension with the US are routine, the Iranian president told reporters during a state visit to Zimbabwe.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was speaking at a news conference late Thursday, hours after his elite Revolutionary Guard began maneuvers in the strategic Persian Gulf oil route, the Hormuz Strait. In the past four years, the maneuvers have always been held in summer. There was no official explanation of why they were brought forward this year, but they came as Iranian leaders were depicting US President IObama's new nuclear policy as a threat.

Iran has been under harsh criticism from Western nations for pressing ahead with uranium enrichment programs it says are to produce nuclear energy. The West fears the militant Islamic state could develop nuclear weapons.

"We are having programs in our home country and the West are not comfortable with that," Ahmadinejad said in Harare. "They don't understand why we are doing so. But it is just an ordinary military exercise that we are currently undertaking."

Ahmadinejad, who opens a trade fair in southern Zimbabwe Friday before heading to Uganda to complete his African trip, said Iran was interested in Africa's markets. He added Iran could also find like-minded leaders in Africa who faced similar problems with the West.

At a state dinner Thursday, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe urged Ahmadinejad to remain resolute in defiance of the West over the nuclear program. Mugabe said both Zimbabwe and Iran were being targeted by the West because of how they wanted to manage their own natural resources.

"We remain resolute in defending Zimbabwe's right to exercise its sovereignty over its natural resources, we have equally supported Iran's right to peaceful use of nuclear energy as enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty," Mugabe said. "Because of these principled positions we have taken at both the domestic and international levels Zimbabwe and Iran have been unjustly vilified and punished by Western countries who seek to undermine our sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity."

Ahmadinejad added: "The only sin ... we have committed is the canceling of the concessions that the West had in our country. The United Nations organ of the Security Council is being used to serve the powerful countries to put pressure on the smaller countries like Iran and Zimbabwe."

Iran is the biggest exhibitor at the trade exposition Ahmadinejad is scheduled to open in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo. Ahmadinejad is the first leader from outside the African continent to open the exposition since independence from British colonial rule in 1980.

In Zimbabwe's ailing economy, many traditional Western exhibitors and local industries have stayed away from the annual trade fair, once a showcase of regional goods and products.

Zimbabwe and Iran say Teheran has proposed assembling tractors in Zimbabwe and that the two countries have agreed to set up a joint investment company to help develop industry, energy, mining, water management and social and financial services.

Zimbabwe's economy went into free fall after disruptions caused by the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms that began in 2000. After world record inflation, a yearlong coalition between Mugabe and the former opposition leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai abandoned the local currency, adopting hard currencies — mostly the US dollar — for all purchases and transactions.

Food imports ended acute shortages of basic goods but many local industries closed down or ran at a fraction of their capacity.

Mugabe insists Western sanctions caused the economic collapse. Western leaders say Mugabe's policies, including his trampling of democracy, brought ruin.

The daily Herald newspaper, a mouthpiece of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, said Ahmadinejad's visit came after the West had declared Iran "an axis of evil" and Zimbabwe a pariah state. It accused the West of wanting to bully both nations using "the might of its weapons of mass destruction."

"The West's neocolonial agenda should only make us stronger," The Herald said in an editorial.

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