Venezuela’s Relations With Iran Unclear In Event of Chávez’s Death

By Dialogo
January 14, 2013



Under President Hugo Chávez, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has aligned
itself politically with the Islamic Republic of Iran, among the world’s most
conservative Muslim nations.
Chávez, 58, has also spearheaded Iran’s growing friendship with allies
Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Yet with the cancer-stricken president in a
hospital in Havana, it’s unclear whether Iran will continue to have much influence
in Latin America in the long term.
For now, at least, “it will be more of the same,” Venezuelan analyst Robert
Bottome, publisher of VenEconomy Weekly, told
Dialogo n a phone interview from
Caracas.
“Everybody’s talking about the different factions competing for power, and in
a year or more, that could make a lot of difference,” said Bottome, referring to
Chávez’s hand-picked successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, and Diosdado Cabello,
chief of Venezuela’s National Assembly. “But in the short term, all these guys have
a tremendous interest in maintaining the status quo.”
Bottome added that “objectively speaking, Venezuela is getting nothing. But
if you assume we’re one of the countries that opposes the imperialists, then the
alliance with Iran makes a lot of sense. Why would they want to change the
relationship with Iran? It’s very productive for both of them.”
On Jan. 10 — the day Chávez was supposed to be sworn in for a fourth six-year
term as president — tens of thousands of his supporters staged a symbolic
inauguration ceremony, their spirits boosted by the presence of three Latin American
heads of state: Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Uruguay’s José
Mujica.

Chávez a frequent visitor to Tehran

For years, the growing friendship between Chávez and Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has worried observers in the United States and Latin America
because both leaders have used the oil wealth of their countries to spread an
anti-Western and specifically an anti-Israel message.
In late December, President Barack Obama signed into law the Countering Iran
in the Western Hemisphere Act — which obliges the State Department to develop a
strategy within 180 days “to address Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity”
in the region.

It also urges the Department of Homeland Security to step up surveillance at
U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico “to prevent operatives from Iran, the Iranian
Revolutionary Guard Corps, its Quds Force, Hezbollah or any other terrorist
organization from entering the United States.” In addition, the new law outlines a
multiagency action plan to provide security in those countries, along with a
“counterterrorism and counter-radicalization plan” to isolate Iran and its allies.
Iran now has 11 embassies in the region, up from five in 2005, and 17
cultural centers; besides Venezuela, it has particularly strong ties with Bolivia,
Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Analyst: Drastic change in Venezuela ‘unlikely’

Since assuming the presidency in 1999, Chávez himself has made nine trips to
Iran. His government has signed more than 200 agreements with Ahmadinejad, including
joint ventures in a plastics mold factory, a binational bank and a $1 billion
binational fund, as well as a deal to train 200 Iranians as petroleum technicians.
In addition, Iran has invested in an automobile manufacturing plant in
Valencia, as well as a tractor factory in Ciudad Bolívar; published reports also
speak of Iranian contracts to build apartments for low-income residents of Caracas.
And in 2007, the two countries established regular flights between Caracas and
Tehran on Conviasa Airlines.
Jaime Daremblum, Costa Rica’s former ambassador to the United States and now
director of Latin American programs at the Hudson Institute, agrees with Bottome.
“Iran plays an important role in Veneuzela, and the people who are close to
the regime share that relationship,” he said. “A very drastic change would have to
occur in the Venezuelan government, and I don’t see that happening for the time
being. The chavistas, even without Chávez, will probably continue for some time.”
He added: “If Chávez were to die and the regime continues, I don’t anticipate
any change vis-à-vis the other countries,” he said. “Besides, the
relationship Iran has with the other Latin American countries is not dependent upon
its relationship with Venezuela.”

Ecuador’s Correa a ‘brother and friend’ of Iran

One of those other countries is Ecuador, which Ahmadinejad visited in January
2012, five years after his first tour of the region. During last year’s trip, he
flashed the V-for-victory sign to admirers while riding through the streets of Quito
in a convertible.
At a news conference, Ahmadinejad called President Rafael Correa “a brother
and a friend.” Later, the two leaders signed an agreement to deepen bilateral
economic and financial cooperation.
Iran opened an embassy in Quito in 2009 and is investing in several projects
including hydroelectric dams. Ecuador, in turn, has received trade preferences for
agricultural exports to Iran, while Tehran has promised up to provide its new friend
with up to $400 million in petroleum derivatives.
“The commercial benefit of the relationship with Iran has been small,” said
Juan Carlos Donoso, a political science professor at Quito’s San Francisco
University. “I don’t think it justifies muddying Ecuador’s name before the
international community.”
Besides the symbolism of defying the West, cozying up to Iran is part of
Ecuador’s drive to open new markets, Donoso said. Although the United States remains
Ecuador’s main commercial partner, China has become a major investor here, while the
Quito government also is reaching out to Russia and other non-traditional trading
partners.

Bolivia warms up to Iran too

In recent years, Bolivia has also become a strong ally of both Venezuela and
Iran. Last May, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi visited the Andean nation to
inaugurate the new College for Defense of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas
(ALBA), an economic trading bloc founded by Chávez and former Cuban leader Fidel
Castro.
Last June, Ahmadinejad paid his third visit to Bolivia since the two
established diplomatic relations in 2007, signing a $1.1 billion memo of
understanding in the fields of agriculture, hydrocarbons, petrochemicals and health
care. Morales has visited Tehran twice, once in 2008 and again in 2010.
Ilan Berman, vice-president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said Iran
has sent between 50 and 300 members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard to Bolivia to
serve as trainers at the school.
“Iran’s involvement in the ALBA school serves as a microcosm of the
Iranian-Bolivian relationship writ large,” Berman warned. “Indeed, regional experts
now estimate that Bolivia could end up becoming as significant as Venezuela in Iran,
both as a source of strategic resources for its widening nuclear program and as a
hub for the Iranian regime’s expanding asymmetric activities in the
Americas.”
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