Reports: Belarus signs contract for oil exploration in Iran

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus: Belarus has signed a contract for oil exploration in Iran, news reports said Wednesday - a deal that reflects improving ties between the two U.S. foes.

The contract, signed in Tehran, grants Belarus long-discussed access to the Jofeir oil field, near the border with Iraq, which could yield up to 40,000 barrels a day once operational, the official BELTA news agency reported.

Tehran and Minsk reached a preliminary agreement on the deal when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Belarus in May.

Belarus hopes to get Vietnam's Petrovietnam oil company to help finance the oil exploration project, which is estimated to cost US$450 million (?330 million), the Belarusian Cabinet said.

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" in the West for quashing opposition and independent media in his country, where the largely Soviet-style state-controlled economy is heavily reliant on cheap Russian energy supplies.

In recent months, Moscow has drastically hiked prices and tightened shipment conditions for oil and gas exports to Belarus, pinching the economy and forcing Lukashenko to search for alternate energy sources.

During a visit by Lukashenko to Iran late last year, Ahmadinejad praised the Belarusian as a "brave and powerful" leader for opposing U.S. policies.