By Majid Rafizadeh
May 9, 2020
Although the Iranian regime is known for sponsoring and building alliances with Shiite state and non-state actors, Tehran’s alliance strategy is also based on partnering with a variety of forces, whatever their religious differences.
One example is the relationship between Iran and one of its closest allies, Venezuela. The main difference between the Islamic Republic and Venezuela is Tehran’s revolutionary ideal of exporting its theocracy to other nations and uniting the Muslim world under its desired system of governance. In fact, that mission is part of Iran’s constitution, as the preamble to the document states that it “provides the necessary basis for ensuring the continuation of the revolution at home and abroad.”
Early on, the Iranian regime sought to achieve its revolutionary ideals alone, with the Islamic Republic’s founder and first Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini advocating that Tehran should pursue a policy of “neither East nor West.” But the regime soon realized that it could not survive without cooperation with other states.
Tehran began strengthening its ties with Venezuela in the early 2000s, particularly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran’s president, for several important reasons.
First, Tehran realized that it could more effectively undermine the West on the global stage by partnering with other anti-Western states. As Ahmadinejad pointed out: “We have to develop a proper cooperation among the developing nations in order to wriggle ourselves from the domination of the Western powers. And this effort is going on among the independent developing nations today. We have to establish a collective effort with a view to create a new international independent economic system that should be on the basis of justice.”
Iran’s ultimate goal is counterbalancing the US and scuttling Washington’s foreign policy objectives around the world by exploiting state and non-state actors that have grievances against America. Venezuela shares the same anti-US agenda, with former President Hugo Chavez once saying that Iran and Venezuela would “unite and create a multipolar world. United, we are going to help defeat US imperialism, and that’s why… they get worried in Washington when they see the two of us shaking hands.”
The second reason for Iran’s outreach to Venezuela is to bring itself out of isolation and project that it enjoys legitimacy on the international stage.
The theocratic establishment has also been capable of partially skirting and undermining US or UN sanctions through its strategic alliance with Venezuela. For example, it was revealed last week that the sanctioned airline carrier Mahan Air flew to the South American nation several times in the last week of April alone. The Iranian regime reportedly delivered gasoline additives, parts and technicians, and received 9 tons of gold bars in return.
Iran is desperate for revenue, as the US sanctions, the coronavirus outbreak and plunging oil prices have decimated its economy. According to the Kepler oil tanker tracking and intelligence firm, Iran’s crude oil exports dropped to 250,000 barrels per day in February. Before the US reintroduced sanctions on Iran’s energy sector in 2018, it was exporting about 10 times that amount.
In addition, Tehran has been using Venezuela for military cooperation and to advance its nuclear program. Caracas has been accused of covertly helping Iran with the production of the raw materials required for nuclear weapons, as well as rockets. In recent years, Iran and Venezuela have signed several military and industrial agreements.
Iran has also been successful in increasing its influence in Latin and North America through Venezuela and the US has become increasingly concerned about Hezbollah’s presence in the South American nation. Nathan Sales, coordinator for counterterrorism at the US State Department, stated in January: “We’re concerned that (Venezuelan President Nicolas) Maduro has extended safe harbor to a number of terrorist groups… (including the) supporters and sympathizers of Hezbollah.” It is worth noting that Hezbollah bombed the headquarters of a Jewish community center in Argentina in 1994, killing 85 people.
The Washington-based Center for a Secure Free Society published a 2014 paper titled “Canada on Guard: Assessing the Immigration Security Threat of Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.” It stated that Venezuela granted more than 173 passports to radical Islamists. These passports could be used for travel to North America or Europe.
Iran’s activities in Venezuela must be monitored closely, as the regime is using the South American country to skirt sanctions and advance its revolutionary and parochial interests.