Iran and Venezuela Have More in Common than the West Thinks

The arrival of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Venezuelan capital Caracas on Sunday was an interesting but minor item in the process of what has become known as "south-south relations". It will strengthen western myth-makers – the same ones who brought us Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction – on the story of Venezuela as a modern day Cave of the 40 Thieves with Hugo Chávez cast as the wicked and wily Ali Baba.


For many in Washington and Whitehall, the Venezuelan leader had already shown his wiliness when in 2002, he bounced back from a dreadfully incompetent plot to overthrow him staged by a local businessman with the backing of the Bush government. Now, the myth-makers demonstrate that the evil Chávez is allying himself with the power in the Middle East that is pressing on with nuclear experiments that the west has decided only Israel is allowed to undertake. The myth-makers will be underlining that he is not only wily – by refusing to align himself with US interests in the west while fighting a clearly serious dose of cancer – but uppity as well. The blighter has been using his oil company in the US to distribute cut-price fuel to poor people in New England and the midwest. Is there nothing, they expostulate in the state department, to which this upstart will not stoop?

Beyond the clouds of poisonous incense, there are very good reasons for the two men to get together once again. Iran and Venezuela have justifiably common interests. In Baghdad in 1960, along with Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, they joined forces to found the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) to ensure themselves better terms from foreign oil companies. Venezuela’s oil minister, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, whom I got to know well in Caracas, was certainly at least as prominent as anyone else in its foundation and early years. The Opec ties between the two countries are certainly more justified than those between the US and, say, Afghanistan or Greece in Nato.

Iran and Venezuela are demonised by Washington – Chávez for his uppityness, the Iranians because they reacted diplomatically in the face of western support and arming of the Shah dictatorship and his torturers in the Savak secret police. The west’s attitude in toppling Iran’s popular leader Mohammad Mosaddegh for his crime of nationalising the oil companies in 1953 and putting back the brutal and ludicrous Shah was of a piece with western support of Latin American dictators. These ranged from General Marcos Pérez Jiménez – an ally of Washington who scuttled off with sack-loads of cash from Venezuela to Franco’s Spain in the 1950s when his country could stand him no longer – General Augusto Pinochet (friend of Margaret Thatcher), General Leopoldo Galtieri, General Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay (a favourite of Dwight D Eisenhower) and the Somoza of Nicaragua.

That there is mild surprise in the west about the visit of an Iranian leader to Venezuela when both are facing challenges at home and abroad is unremarkable. But then when were western audience and readerships ever given much chance in their media to learn about Latin America since the death of Che Guevara and Carmen Miranda?