Two events that defy hawk logic have taken place in the same month. First, on the 5th of June United States secretary of state John Kerry met with Venezuela's foreign minister, Elias Jaua, and stated that he had agreed to pursue a more “positive relationship” with Venezuela. Then, just weeks later, Iranians voted in a president who has openly argued against nuclear proliferation.
What happened? Iran and Venezuela's amiable relationship of the last decade was supposed to be the sum of all fears for Washington. Two “tyrants”, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez, were accused of co-sponsoring all sorts of wild, fantastical plots by Washington's warmongers. But was the Iran-Venezuela relationship ever about crushing the “free world” by assembling an unholy alliance of druglords, Islamists and socialists, or is there a slightly saner explanation?
The crazy brigade
It was just in March that Roger Noriega delivered his red blooded testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that alleged that Latin American drug traffickers, Hezbollah, Venezuela and Iran have all united in some kind of convoluted plot that involves waging “asymmetrical warfare against U.S. security, interests and allies close to the homeland”. Along with stating that “Hezbollah operatives and their radical anti-Semitic allies hold important senior positions in the Venezuelan government”, Noriega also argued that Margarita Island is basically one big Hezbollah training camp (could put a slight dent in the government's ambitions to develop the tourism sector) and that senior “chavista officials engage routinely in lucrative schemes involving Hezbollah front companies, Colombian terrorist groups, narcotraffickers, Venezuelan financial institutions and even powerful state-run entities”.
In short a unified front of Arabs, Iranians, terrorism, drugs and state run enterprises united against Washington. Noriega is far from a lone voice warning against this rainbow of conservative fears. Vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council Ilan Berman has also warned that a myriad of recent events ranging from toilet paper shortages in Venezuela to the Colombian peace process are all possibly playing into the hands of a shadowy “network enabling Iran to carry out attacks in the region”. Last year, an opinion piece in the Miami Herald penetrated to the core of this existential threat to the U.S.: the “most remarkable and dangerous foreign policy initiative of the [former] Chávez regime”, its positive relationship with Iran. The article continues by arguing that the threat of Iran and Venezuela cooperating to “smuggle a nuclear weapon into the U.S...should not be dismissed lightly”.
The relationship between Caracas and Iran was a key consideration when lawmakers passed the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012 (CIWHA), which aims to “address Iran's growing hostile presence and activity” in the region. Since CIWHA was passed, Venezuela's state arms manufacturer has been targeted by U.S. sanctions under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA).
Perhaps the events of June will make some of the fear brigade rethink the Iran-Venezuela relationship. After all, the relationship between the two countries isn't quite as sinister as the likes of Noriega make it out to be. No, Iran and Venezuela are not cooperating to nuke Miami, and PDVSA might not actually be a Hezbollah front. The reality of the relationship is just as interesting, but it just doesn't read like an Ian Fleming novel.
And a dash of reality
While military cooperation between Iran and Venezuela still hit the headlines every so often, energy resources are the real lynchpin of the relationship. In 2010 both countries agreed to invest US$760 million in each other's energy sectors. On top of this, under another agreement, US$800 million worth of Venezuelan gasoline was shipped to Iran. In the following year over 14,000 homes that were built in Venezuela under the housing mission were constructed with Iranian assistance. In 2012, a slew of new agreements were signed between the two countries; mostly in the fields of technology, agriculture, food processing and civil construction. The relationship between Iran and Venezuela is clearly multifaceted – it has a defensive aspect, but is largely focused on civilian projects.
A reasonable...nay, inevitable deterrence policy
Focusing on the Iran-Venezuela relationship as a defensive initiative does not give an accurate impression of the whole story, but is, nonetheless, the most controversial aspect of the relationship. Yet this relationship as an aspect of defence policy is not only reasonable, but almost inevitable given Washington's handling of the two countries in recent years.
As Michael Corcoran rightly pointed out in February, despite being lumped in the same basket by much of the Western media, internally the governments of Iran and Venezuela couldn't be more different. As Corcoran argues:
“Venezuela has internationally recognized elections and works to empower the working class and the poor. Chávez’s opponents in Venezuela are free to broadcast their discontent and do. Venezuela may in fact be the only nation where the media could publicly call for a coup of an elected leader, as some Venezuelan media outlets did in 2002, and remain on the air. Certainly, such activities would not be permitted in the United States. In contrast, Iran, an Islamist state, jails dissidents, executes gays, and is ruled with absolute power by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet for the U.S. media, Iran and the left-leaning Latin American governments are all of a piece. This assumption undergirds the demonization of the “pink tide” leaders as dangerous pawns in Iran’s supposed efforts to build nuclear weapons—efforts that are unconfirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies or the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
I couldn't put it better myself.
Nonetheless, the disdain with which Washington has treated both countries over the last decade has led them to take a number of similar actions in the international theatre. If a global hegemon treats two countries similarly, then it shouldn't be a mystery when they both respond in similar ways. It really shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone to see both Iran and Venezuela pursuing policies of deterrence throughout the last decade.
Since the U.S. backed the 2002 coup against Chávez, Venezuela has developed a multifaceted deterrence strategy primarily reliant on developing regional alliances (the drive to modernise the Venezuelan military is supplementary at best). As was blatantly obvious to most observers of this year's Organization of American States (OAS) summit, this strategy has been nothing short of a spectacular success. From issues ranging from counter-narcotics to free trade, the U.S. and Canada were looking pretty lonely. However, Iran's attempts to integrate into the international community have failed, largely due to U.S.-Israeli efforts. Hence, while Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro enjoys strong support from most of Latin America (for proof, look no further than his tour of the Southern Cone, which VA covered here and here), Iran is encircled by U.S.-aligned regimes in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, contrary to Noriega's fear mongering, as Bloomberg recently reported, even the State Department has conceded that “Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning”. In such a context, if Iran is developing nuclear weapons (which there is scant evidence of) then it's largely the result of U.S. policy. If the country's atomic energy program really is peaceful, then the Iranian leadership is in desperate need of some kind of effective deterrence model; especially when Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be under the impression that Iran's leaders are plotting a second holocaust. The supreme leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei only needs to look next door to Iraq to see what happens when U.S/Israeli hawks come knocking and you don't have any WMD's. Indeed, if Saddam Hussein actually had WMD's, the likelihood that even the hawks would have risked their deployment with an invasion is remote.
So, while there are still plenty in Washington who are eager to beat the drums of war, in reality both Venezuela and Iran are pursuing defensive policies in the face of very real U.S. aggression. For Iran, Washington's aggression manifests mostly in its policy of encirclement, and the ever tightening economic sanctions, which have put millions of lives at risk. These are supplemented by Israeli aggression, most notably in the form of Mossad support of groups like the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, which has carried out anumber of terrorist attacks on Iranian soil. U.S. dependence on Venezuelan oil makes extensive sanctions undesirable for Washington, and attempts to encircle Venezuela have utterly failed, leaving the exploitation of Venezuela's opposition as the only viable option in recent years. However, as I have previously argued, U.S. attempts to isolate and destabilise Venezuela have failed to the extent that as a last resort, Washington may try to actually foster cooperation with Caracas.
Does this mean the U.S. wont try to extinguish Venezuela-Iran relations in the future?
Not at all, though the focus will change. Unlike a decade ago, the Iran-Venezuela bond is no longer mutually beneficial as a deterrence strategy. While Venezuela still has plenty to gain from cooperation with Iran in areas like agriculture and technology (Cavim's new Harpy is a great example of the latter), Venezuela probably wont see deterrence dividends so much in the future. Between ALBA, PetroCaribe and Mercosur, Venezuela's geopolitical significance has skyrocketed over the last decade, while the U.S.'s iron grip on the western hemisphere is quickly becoming a bad memory. Iran, on the other hand, needs all the help it can get. If the Western media is to be believed, sanctions are working exactly as intended; punishing the poor. Meanwhile, the Israeli noose is tightening, and the U.S. propaganda machine keeps rolling on. As Hugo Chavez once said, “they accuse us of being a threat to the United States. They are the threat, and not a hypothetical one but a real, proven one.”
Given the dwindling security dividends Iran can offer Venezuela, if Maduro continues to pursue close ties with Tehran, it will probably be with the hope of ensuring that Iranians are never the victim of anything like the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria. Nuking the U.S. mainland, or selling Caribbean holiday homes to Hezbollah probably aren't too high on the agenda.