A Tale of Two Rogue States: The Iran-Venezuela Partnership

Islamic Republic of Iran Army soldiers during the Islamic Republic of Iran during Sacred Defense Week Parade (2012). Photo Credit: Army University Press.

If Iran and Venezuela were on a speed-date, perhaps they would find commonalities beyond their shared status as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) founders and petroleum-exporting states. Both countries find themselves on the receiving end of high-pressure US sanctions for gross abuses of international norms and human rights. They are ostracized by regional neighbors for these violations. Their regimes openly embrace an ideology of anti-imperialism that viciously criticizes what they perceive to be Washington’s interventionist foreign policy, which unites them in what Alberto Garrido dubs a “strategic alliance.”[i]

It should come as no surprise that 2020 witnessed a flurry of Iran-Venezuela activity. Iranian commercial airliners airlifted technical components and personnel to Venezuela to revive its Latin American partner’s oil refineries. In return, Caracas paid in its own gold bars for Iran to return home with them.[ii] In May 2020, Iranian oil tankers delivered fuel to Venezuelan ports in a move that defied US sanctions against Caracas.[iii] The Iranians also ferried food supplies to Venezuela the following month to support an Iranian-established supermarket in the country.[iv] These recent actions follow a long history of material and rhetorical camaraderie between the Islamic Republic and the Bolivarian Regime stretching back to the days of Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chávez.[v]

The recent string of events in the Iran-Venezuela bilateral relationship raise questions about the trajectory of the partnership, the threat it poses to US interests, and the appropriate US response to both Tehran and Caracas. If the United States seeks to better understand Iran and Venezuela’s respective playbooks, then a continued study of the relationship could only help Washington to calibrate its pressure campaigns against both states’ regimes. On the other hand, Iran and Venezuela’s joint front against the United States has simply remained confined to fiery rhetoric and symbolic gestures. It has also not significantly threatened Washington.

Over the past several years, Iran and Venezuela have signed numerous agreements in technology, trade, pharmaceuticals, and other fields. Bilateral cooperation significantly jumped after the United States reinstituted sanctions on Iran following the Trump administration’s disavowal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).[vi] However, while both countries have actively spotlighted moments of bilateral cooperation to highlight the strength of their alliance, the reality of its supposed tangible benefits is largely questionable. The Iran-Venezuela relationship reached its zenith under the administrations of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Chávez, during which both countries signed more than 300 agreements.[vii] However, the majority of these agreements did not come to fruition, and the current relationship has largely stagnated despite efforts to sign additional agreements.[viii]

What does this stark discrepancy between the rhetoric of Iran-Venezuela solidarity and the actual benefits of the relationship show regarding the partnership? In one sense, both countries have less to offer one another materially than they themselves and the world would think. In another sense, any trade or technological cooperation between both countries is largely overshadowed by intangible benefits. Analysts have called Venezuela Iran’s “beachhead” in Latin America for the Islamic Republic to extend its influence in the region,[ix] while Venezuela is said to have benefitted from the prestige that accompanies its affiliation with a revolutionary state like Iran.[x] Iranian engagement with Venezuela is solely focused on obtaining what Admiral Craig Faller dubs a “positional advantage” against the United States in the region.[xi] However, these types of benefits are not entirely measurable. The significant geographic distance between both countries not only casts doubt on the material benefits of the relationship, but also raises questions about these non-material ones as well.

The fact that both countries rely largely on intangible benefits from their relationship points to a larger underlying unifier in the relationship: the United States. It is clear that both countries’ paths have converged due to an intense resentment of Washington. The international isolation stemming from Iran and Venezuela’s rogue behavior has made both states eager to find partners in their solitude. The similarity in their experiences naturally draw both states together and mitigate some parts of this isolation, allowing these countries to feel a sense of empathy for each other. I argue that the seemingly irrational and unprofitable commitment to one another acts as an outlet for “cathartic venting,” as both countries’ leaders jointly condemn the United States in bilateral meetings.[xii]As a whole, the Iran-Venezuela front does not pose a direct, overwhelming threat to Washington and has simply fixed itself mostly around rhetorical bashing of the United States.

The lack of strong substance behind the bilateral relationship should not dissuade the United States from continuing to monitor it. Iran’s proxy Hezbollah maintains a strong presence in Venezuela through its illicit financial and trafficking networks in the region, which keeps the ruling regime in power. Furthermore, Iran has allegedly sought to train Venezuela in asymmetric warfare tactics.[xiii] These activities affect Washington’s efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela and counter the malign activities of these rogue states.

The United States should implement two actions with respect to the Iran-Venezuela relationship. Washington announced in early July that it would confiscate any Iranian oil heading for Venezuela and moved to interdict four tankers traveling to the South American country with this cargo.[xiv] From this, the United States should continue to penalize and intercept vessels and individuals that try to ship Iranian oil to Venezuela in a prompt, flexible manner that responds quickly to violations of sanctions. In this way, Washington can discourage additional violations, signal credibility of enforcement, and maintain pressure on the regimes in Iran and Venezuela. U.S. intelligence services should continue to observe the relationship closely and make note of observables from bilateral meetings, economic exchanges, and other notable interactions. The hope is that continued study of the relationship can allow Washington to better understand the foreign policies of these countries and adjust policies accordingly in response to their actions.

[i] Juan Forero, “Iran and Venezuela Vow to Fight ‘U.S. Imperialism,’ NPR, January 14, 2007, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.p hp?storyId=6854130.

[ii] Patricia Laya and Ben Bartenstein, “Iran is Hauling Gold Bars Out of Venezuela’s Almost-Empty Vaults,” Bloomberg, April 30, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-30/iran-is-hauling-gold-bars-out-of-venezuela-s-almost-empty-vaults.

[iii] Julie Turkewitz, “Oil-Starved Venezuela Celebrates Arrival of Tankers from Iran,” The New York Times, May 25, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/25/world/americas/Iranian-oil-tankers-venezuela.html.

[iv] Deisy Buitrago and Tibisay Romero, “Iran Ship Reaches Venezuelan Waters with Cargo of Food,” Reuters, June 21, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-iran/iran-ship-reaches-venezuelan-waters-with-cargo-of-food-idUSKBN23S0WW.

[v] For a detailed report on the Iran-Venezuela relationship, see Elodie Brun, “Iran’s Place in Venezuela’s Foreign Policy,” in Iran in Latin America: Threat or ‘Axis of Annoyance’?, ed. Cynthia Arnson, Haleh Esfandiari, and Adam Stubits (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2009).

[vi] Alex Yacoubian, “Iran, Venezuela Increase Ties Amid U.S. Sanctions,” United States Institute of Peace: Iran Primer, updated June 24, 2020, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2020/may/27/iran-venezuela-increase-ties-under-us-sanctions.

[vii] Stephen Johnson, “Iran is Working Hard to Revive Anti-U.S. Operations in Latin America,” Foreign Policy, June 1, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/01/iran-venezuela-alliances-latin-america/.

[viii] Moises Rendon, Antonio De La Cruz, and Claudia Fernandez, “Understanding the Iran-Venezuela Relationship,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 4, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/understanding-iran-venezuela-relationship.

[ix] Norman A. Bailey, “Iran’s Venezuelan Gateway,” The American Foreign Policy Council, February 2012, 1, https://www.afpc.org/uploads/documents/ISB5.pdf.

[x] Rendon, De La Cruz, and Fernandez, “Understanding the Iran-Venezuela Relationship.”

[xi] Benoit Faucon, “U.S. Seeks Ways to Halt Iran’s Oil Sales to Venezuela,” The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-seeks-ways-to-halt-irans-oil-sales-to-venezuela-11589985467.

[xii] One example of a bilateral Iran-Venezuela meeting that denounced the United States occurred on June 30, 2018, when the Iranian and Venezuelan foreign ministries issued a joint declaration against Washington. See “Venezuela Hails Iran’s Fight Against US’ Hegemony,” Iran Front Page News, June 30, 2018, https://ifpnews.com/venezuela-hails-irans-fight-against-us-hegemony.

[xiii] Penny L. Watson, “Hezbollah’s Presence and Iran’s Influence in Venezuela Coming Into Focus,” Radio Farda, February 12, 2019, https://en.radiofarda.com/a/would-a-new-venezuelan-government-kick-out-hezbollah-/29765060.html.

[xiv] “US Tries to Seize Four Iranian Tankers Sailing Towards Venezuela,” Al Jazeera, July 2, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/seize-iranian-tankers-sailing-venezuela-200702170317959.html.

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