Venezuela Iran’s Best Friend?

Venezuela and Iran appear to have developed a close relationship over the past few years. What is this relationship based on? Is it purely strategic or is it deeper?

On February 15, the day after Valentines’ day, the head of the Venezuelan parliament, Nicolas Maduro stood side by side with the speaker of the Iranian Parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel. Maduro said, “From our souls, we feel that our two nations are brothers and that together with other peoples we are carrying the flag of dignity and sovereignty.”

Venezuela was one of the only countries to vote against Iran being sent to the UN Security Council for its nuclear activities. Both countries have agreed to cooperate on mutual economic development, especially in the oil sector.

Pat Robertson, the US Christian evangelist and associate of George W. Bush said Chavez’s Venezuela is a launching pad for, “Muslim extremism all over the continent.” Robertson also claimed, without evidence, that Chavez sent money to Osama Bin Laden.

Venezuela's President Chavez and Iran's former President Khatami during an official state visit in Iran.
Credit: Prensa Presidencial

A recent article from the conservative US newspaper, the Washington Times with the title, “Venezuela Seeks Nuclear Technology”, gave the impression that Venezuela was about to take delivery of Nuclear Weapons from Iran to use against the US.

General James Hill, the head of the U.S. Southern Command claimed Venezuela was supporting “Islamic terror groups” in one of its major tourist resorts, Margarita Island. This was immediately and easily disproved by journalists visiting the alleged sites.

Despite some of these outlandish US claims, Venezuela’s reasons for having an alliance with Iran is motivated by other things than wanting to be part of an “Islamo-bloc” of nations against the US.

Venezuela is obviously not an Islamic country and its President, Hugo Chavez is not a Muslim.  More famous for calling himself a Socialist, Chavez is a very Christian man and has put Christianity at the centre of his politics.

Posters for Chavez’s government with “Christianity and Socialism” written on them are everywhere in Venezuela. Combining these two philosophies the President has gone as far as saying, “Jesus was the first socialist, and Judas the first capitalist.”

Venezuela's President Chavez and Iran's former President Khatami in Venezuela.
Credit: Prensa Presidencial

The two countries do not share all the same foreign policy aims either. Venezuela is more than happy to do business with a country the Iranian President recently said should be, “wiped off the map.”

Israel has received millions of dollars from Venezuela in recent years. This money was to pay for weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles. Israel would have gotten another $100 million last year to repair Venezulea’s F16 fighter aircraft if the US government had not stopped the deal.

Chavez also sent his best wishes to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he became seriously ill in January. The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments for Sharon were less generous.

Given all this, observers of the Venezuelan situation may be confused why

The country has an alliance with Iran. To understand it helps to look at Venezuela’s foreign policy as a whole.

The Bolivarian Revolution

Since Hugo Chavez Frias was elected President in late 1998, there have been a lot of changes in Venezuela, such as a new constitution based on popular consultation and voted on by the people and new welfare and education programs to serve the poor.

Agriculture, defense, television, in almost every part of Venezuelan society there is something new. Much of this has been paid for with oil money, since Venezuela is the world’s 5th largest oil exporter. Chavez has used this oil money to raise the living standards of the poor.

This whole process of change has been called the “Bolivarian Revolution” named after Chavez’s personal hero and Venezuelan national independence leader Simon Bolivar.

So far the “Bolivarian Revolution” and its President are very popular. Chavez and the parties that support him have won 10 election victories in the past 7 years. The Venezuelan President rarely gets less than 60% approval ratings in opinion polls.

Despite this popularity there has also been strong opposition to the “Bolivarian Revolution” from inside and outside Venezuela. Largely deposed by Chavez, the former Venezuelan political elite have led strikes, a recall referendum, and even a coup against his government.

The United States was the main foreign supporter of the 2002 coup and has been connected with funding other efforts to get rid of the Chavez government. The US says it opposes Chavez because he is trying to make Venezuela into a Cuban-style communist country.

Chavez responds to this hostility to the “Bolivarian Revolution” by calling the US an “empire” and the US President George W. Bush, “Mr. Danger.” Chavez also repeatedly says the US wants to invade Venezuela and overthrow his government.

However likely a US invasion of Venezuela is in reality, Chavez has wanted to create international alliances that will preserve the “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela in all circumstances.

Latin American Brotherhood

Alliances between Venezuela and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean are characterized by a sort of idealism and even generosity. Chavez considers these countries all part of one great nation and is fighting hard to integrate them into a single political, economic and social union.

As part of this integration effort Venezuela has worked out the Petrocaribe agreement, in which Venezuela supplies 13 Caribbean countries with preferential financing terms for oil. This seems mainly motivated by sympathy for the generally horrible economic situation that many Caribbean islands find themselves in. On the whole they are very grateful for the help.

Taking full advantage of this agreement, Cuba has become the closest ally, receiving oil supplies that do much to ease the pressure on its economy. In exchange, Cuba has sent 30,000 doctors and support staff to help implement the welfare missions whose success is a critical part of Chavez’s popularity.

Venezuela has worked out similar agreements throughout Latin America. For example, in return for Venezuelan oil Argentina supplies Venezuela with high quality agricultural products. This food goes to the Mercal supermarkets located in poor areas where it is sold at a low price. Like the free Cuban healthcare this increases support for the government.

More generously Venezuela has bought over $2 billion of Argentinean debt. The government has claimed that it has sold some of this for a profit. Most other people see this as another part of Venezuela’s generosity to its fellow Latin American countries.

As well as economic benefits for his country, the Brazilian President Luiz Inacio da Silva has gained important political support from Chavez. Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and other countries have all signed beneficial deals.

The generous parts of Venezuela’s relationships with other Latin American countries have not only been out of kindness. Venezuela has fought for and gained entry into the continent’s most important regional trading and political bloc MERCOSUR.

More importantly, Chavez is trying to encourage other countries to join his more thorough integration plan called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA. So far Cuba is the only other member. Venezuela appears hopeful though that with a popular shift to the left in Latin America apparently growing ever stronger this will change in the future.

Strategic Partners

Chavez also feels that other countries from the global south such as those in the Middle East and Africa are in a sense ‘brothers.’ Having said this, relations with them on the whole are more strategic and less generous than with Latin America.

Venezuela has gone to China for computer technology and construction assistance to help develop the economy. It has also been sought out as a potential oil customer as part of Venezuela’s attempts to lessen its dependence on the US market. Russia is another energy partner. Along with Israel it has helped with re-equipping Venezuela’s hopelessly inadequate armed forces.

On this strategic level Iran is important for cooperation with oil, which is essential to help pay for Latin American integration and to build the “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela.

Iran’s position as a major oil producer and the second largest contributor to OPEC is one reason why it is a close ally. In the first years of Chavez’s presidency Chavez led a vigorous campaign to get OPEC to not produce too much oil and as a result the price increased. It went from a dangerously low $12.28 per barrel in 1998 to $27.60 in 2000.

The actions of OPEC are not as important in keeping the oil price high now. The continuing war in Iraq and high Chinese and Indian demand take more credit for this. Even so, Venezuela still considers OPEC an important factor in its oil policy.

This can be seen by the way it is mentioned in speeches and by private debriefings from inside the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA. An official speaking on the condition of anonymity said, “OPEC was important before 2001 and may be again in the future. It is also valued as an organization that fits in with the Venezuelan idea of a multi-polar world.”

Oil also connects Iran and Venezuela through the way the Islamic Republic is providing technical assistance to the Venezuelan industry. Iranian oil companies are taking part in joint projects to develop Venezuela’s oil rich areas such as the Orinoco belt. This technical help is especially valuable after the damage and sabotage the Venezuelan industry suffered during the oil strike in 2003.

As important as oil is between Iran and Venezuela it is not everything. Another thing that brings the two countries closer is that they are receiving pressure from the US. Venezuela sees both countries as under attack from “US imperialism.” Support for Iran is viewed as a rejection of US dominance and interference everywhere in the world including Latin America.

This is a large part of why Venezuelan helps Iran in its nuclear confrontation with Europe and the US. It is why the official Venezuelan statement in support of Iran having a peaceful civilian nuclear program has so many references to “sovereignty” and of the right for countries to decide their own affairs.

Partners not Brothers

Having said this, Venezuela’s relationship with Iran is overwhelmingly pragmatic. Even though some Venezuelan politicians talk about Iran in a way that sounds similar to the way they refer to Bolivia or Cuba, the relationship is not nearly as friendly.

Iran’s conservative, Islamist government, which does not tolerate trade unions, amongst other things, has very little do with what is happening in Venezuela. In private, many government supporters strongly disagree with the principle and practice of Iran’s theocracy.

The same PDVSA official said before the current ultra-conservative Iranian President relations with Iran were better. Even before him, though, there were, “no illusions that Iran is a ‘Bolivarian’ country. They are still the second largest member of OPEC though. We need them as a strategic partner,” the official said.

Feeling isolated and threatened by the US and in need of a good oil price to achieve domestic and foreign aims, the Venezuelans have found a number of allies who do not share the same political perspective as the “Bolivarian Revolution.”

Iran, Russia, China and Israel, amongst others, all have a part to play in a foreign policy that some Chavez supporters may think is disappointingly similar to classic, cynical state craft.

What they underestimate is the determination and commitment of Chavez and his supporters to make sure that the process of change they are helping make happen in Venezuela and more broadly in Latin America is not turned back.