What’s really behind the Iran-Venezuela bromance?
In June, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro arrived in Iran for a two-day visit, marking the first time in five years that the leader has landed in the equally isolated Islamic Republic.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who has framed his foreign policy around anti-American motives, is investing in improving relations with Venezuela as Iran fails to strengthen relations with its traditional Asian allies and has failed to no roadmap for reconnecting with the West.
During the visit, Iran and Venezuela signed a 20-year cooperation agreement, details of which have not been made public.
But for the two countries whose economies have been crushed under years of biting US sanctions, there is powerful symbolism in reinvigorating ties that were mostly stagnant under Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, whose main political priority was to normalize ties with the West.
On the second day of Maduro’s tour, Iran officially delivered an Aframax tanker known as Yoraco, a vessel designed to transport 800,000 barrels of oil to Venezuela.
The Yoraco was built by the SADRA shipyard under a 60 million euro deal, which the Islamic Republic says has been paid in full despite doubts that heavily sanctioned Venezuela is either liquid enough to do so.
In 2006, the two sides launched ambitious plans to increase bilateral trade to $11 billion a year, especially at a time when then-radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoyed cordial relations with late Venezuelan populist leader Hugo Chavez. Second, the alliance was apparently the vanguard of a new cross-regional anti-American bulwark.
President Rouhani’s overtures to the US and EU have overshadowed ties with Venezuela. Despite large projects, trading volumes are still negligible. In 2021, bilateral trade stood at $122 million, constituting a tiny fraction of the South American nation’s foreign trade.
But the latest indications are emerging that the relationship is intensifying and the two international pariahs, in a joint attempt to resist and push back against international sanctions, are exploring new areas of collaboration.
Iran-Venezuela relations have been widely described as rhetorical and ideological, but the two anti-American states are translating these commonalities into action to protect each other from chronic isolation and economic hardship caused by sanctions.
Amid severe fuel shortages and as Maduro was mired in a nationwide fracas after the disputed 2019 presidential election, Iran shipped several shipments of gasoline to Venezuela.
In May 2020, a flotilla of five Iranian tankers transported 1.53 million barrels of gasoline from the port of Bandar Abbas to refineries in Venezuela. A sixth ship crossed the Caribbean Sea and docked at La Guayra, unloading 345,000 barrels.
The second shipment, consisting of four tankers carrying 1.12 million barrels of oil, was confiscated by the US Department of Justice in August 2020.
Venezuela’s second-largest refinery, Cardon, took delivery of 200,000 barrels of Iranian heavy crude earlier in April, and another 400,000 barrels were unloaded in Puerto José in May.
Venezuela’s state oil and gas company PDVSA continues to receive condensate from its Iranian partners, and the El Palito refinery has taken over a crude distillation unit thanks to elaborate repairs and an upgrade carried out at the using equipment acquired from Iran.
From 2001 to 2013, nearly 300 agreements were signed by the governments of Tehran and Caracas on a range of projects, including affordable housing, cement factories, automobile factories, hospitals, department stores, dairy farms and seafood companies. Investments and loans made by Iranian entities in Venezuela are estimated at between $15 billion and $20 billion.
As the embattled Raisi administration looks to Maduro’s Venezuela as an economic lifeline and political ally, Caracas is embarking on a delicate rapprochement with the United States, which, in light of the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia and soaring world oil prices, could restore Venezuela to its key position as a world oil exporter.
Iran’s openness to Venezuela is partly driven by economic interests and partly by a desire to gain a foothold in “America’s backyard,” as government parlance asserts. This explains the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ growing appetite for ties in Latin America and even nurturing the idea of a military presence in Venezuelan waters.
But according to Richard Hanania, president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology and a researcher at the University of Texas, Iran and Venezuela ultimately have little to offer each other.
“The problem for each of these states is the lack of access to global capital. They are both financially isolated from the rest of the world, so [they’re] not really able to help each other. Some of the things they promote, like direct flights, should have next to no impact on geopolitics or the global economy,” he said.
“It looks more like a political ploy than anything else, [and] it is hard to see how Maduro’s trip to Iran could have been economically justified. It seems bad for a nation to be isolated from the rest of the world, so it pays to show up with friends, no matter how useful those friends are,” Hanania told Asia Times.
Other critics agree that the small, beleaguered Latin American nation is unable to make a meaningful contribution to Iran’s economic rehabilitation as a relaunch of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Related sanctions relief are still distant hopes.
“Venezuela doesn’t have much to offer Iran. Its economy is in shambles – it is possibly even worse off than Iran’s economy, and its oil and petrochemical facilities are in bad shape. Iran managed to sell its oil to China and others in defiance of US sanctions, but Venezuela’s oil sales fell to nothing, both because of the sanctions and the physical deterioration of its facilities. and its oil fields,” said Gregory Brew, a historian. of Iranian-American Relations and postdoctoral researcher Henry A Kissinger at Yale University.
“Thus, the gains for Iran are largely political and strategic, strengthening ties with an antagonistic state to the United States at a time when US-Iranian relations are on the verge of souring, given the odds waning of a return to the JCPOA,” he said.
Brew told Asia Times that the United States wants to bring Venezuela back into the global oil market and that efforts are tentatively being pursued towards that goal.
“While no U.S. oil company has an overt interest in pursuing commercial relations with Iran, Chevron maintains an ongoing interest in Venezuelan oil and continues to push for an end to the sanctions regime.
“Venezuela arguably has more to gain from a rapprochement with the United States than from a new relationship with Tehran and that could dampen the effectiveness of Tehran’s outreach to Caracas, assuming the American effort carries its fruits.”
Claudia Gago Ostos, a research intern at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank, says Iran and Venezuela can benefit from each other, but not enough to be buoys mutual economic bailouts.
“With rising oil prices, some upside or a bit of respite might come, but not enough to consider either country a lifeline from sanctions.”
“Similarly, Iran has signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with China, and a proposed 20-year agreement with Russia exists, although both lack concrete details and plans. two countries could come from their alliances with China, Turkey or Russia, all bigger economic players,” she said.
In the first year since the signing of the JCPOA under then-President Hassan Rohani, the Heads of State and Government of Greece, Switzerland, Italy, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia visited Tehran, illustrating an unprecedented experience. readiness of EU Member States and wider Europe to relaunch relations with Iran.
Today, near the end of President Raisi’s first year in office, no Western leader has visited Iran, underscoring its enduring isolation.
“Iran’s renewed interest in establishing close ties with Venezuela does not mean that Tehran’s relations with the West will inevitably be strained and strained for the foreseeable future, but it does show that Tehran is hedging its bets. on improving ties with the United States, which is not surprising given the extreme hostility of the Trump administration towards Iran and the slow pace of negotiations with the Biden administration on reviving the JCPOA” , said David Wight, visiting assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
As the Biden administration navigates options to bring down global oil prices, including engaging Venezuela, experts say Iran’s continued bromance with its Latin American partner could be a double-edged sword of risks and rewards until relations with the United States are restored. .
“I think it’s risky for Iran to woo Venezuela like that. This reinforces the US hawks’ argument that Iran is an offensive-minded country that threatens America rather than a defensive-minded country focused on its own region. This view could be used to overthrow the regime in Tehran,” dared Max Abrahms, associate professor of political science at Northeastern University.
“On the other hand, Venezuela arguably gives Iran strategic advantages in terms of power projection in the Americas, so there are cross-cutting strategic effects of this bilateral relationship,” he added.
Follow Kourosh Ziabari on Twitter at @KZiabari