May 3, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Iran-Venezuela: A Growing Strategic Partnership

As of early May 2012, Islamic Republic of Iran Navy Admiral Ali Fadavi stirred international tensions by alluding to a possible future Iranian naval visit to the Gulf of Mexico and East Coast of the United States. The Admiral's inflammatory comments followed the revelation by U.S. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, the commander of U.S. forces in South America, that Iran had recently begun assisting Venezuela in building unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones). These episodes were perceived as deeply troublesome developments to many in the global community in light of Iran's ongoing nuclear ambitions and increasing uncertainty about Venezuela's future as the health of President Hugo Chávez continues to decline. As both Iran and Venezuela are charter members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), this potential confluence of events could introduce additional disorder to an already unsettled global oil market.


A Relationship Based on Common Objectives

Chávez first visited Iran in 2001, and has maintained a regular travel schedule to Tehran ever since. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also made frequent trips to Caracas to visit Chávez, who is suffering from cancer. The two leaders appear to genuinely care for each other and have signed numerous agreements pledging mutual defense and economic partnership between their two countries. And Iran and Venezuela share a single, common goal in Latin America: weaken U.S. and Western influence throughout the hemisphere — especially in developing nations — by fostering a consortium of ideologically-driven, like-minded partners in the region. At this stage, however, this strategy lacks the necessary diplomatic reach and international support to be viable, and remains largely symbolic.

Despite its president's political aspirations — and distractions — Venezuela remains of strategic importance to the global community, especially the West, China and South America. Iran's meddling in South America, and in Venezuela in particular, is thus seen as a series of escalating and unnecessary provocations, even if Iran does not pose a true hemispheric threat. While Venezuela and Iran might agree that their activities are provocative, the partners would hardly label the moves unnecessary, and certainly not outside their rights. For both countries, the construction of drones and related purchase of other defense products — such as fighter jets, submarines and air defense systems — simply represents the natural progression of a decade-long military, political and economic partnership intended primarily to thwart U.S. imperialism and to defend ideological principles, as well as to enhance trade and industry development and increase military deterrence against other regional powers.

Both Venezuela and Iran have a long history of wielding oil ""diplomacy for effect"" in global interactions. (In an interesting side note, Venezuela ranks 172 and Iran ranks 120 of 183 nations on Transparency International's Corruption 2011 Index.) While Iran's oil strength is well known, Venezuela's oil reserves are all-to-often overlooked, even though they are among the top ten in the world and clearly the largest in Latin America. These reserves afford the nation unique advantages among its neighbors in terms of political posturing and defense spending, both of which create opportunities upon which Iran is only too happy to capitalize.


Extending the Reach of Influence

Recent increases in oil prices have provided a windfall to Venezuela, and Chávez has been quick to use the money to expand social programs, substantially buttress his relationship with Iran, and increase his influence with neighboring states, most notably Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Venezuela's relationship with China has been growing ever-stronger as well. China values Venezuela as a crude oil supplier and as a market for its finished goods, while Venezuela views China as an attractive —and strategically useful — alternative to the U.S. oil market as well as a potential counterweight to American influence in the region.  

As Iran and Venezuela continue their attempts to extend the reach of their influence in Latin America, and demonstrate strength and global relevance at home, the relationship between the two nations is likely to grow stronger. Economic and financial sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran and the domestic and regional concerns of Venezuela make such partnerships crucial during uncertain times. The two nations can be expected to stand together in the breech of global affairs—especially when it comes to publicly provoking and denigrating the U.S. and it allies wherever possible.

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