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The Unlikely Partnership Of Venezuela And Iran

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (right) with Mahmud Ahmadinejad during a visit to Caracas by the Iranian president in November 2009.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (right) with Mahmud Ahmadinejad during a visit to Caracas by the Iranian president in November 2009.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is due to visit Tehran this week in the wake of visits to Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. While Chavez unveiled a host of new deals while in Moscow, in Tehran the best that awaits him is reconfirmation of agreements that he signed previously with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. That, of course, and a joint platform for launching yet another tirade against U.S. imperialism.

Chavez warmed up a bit of his criticism of Washington while he was in Moscow for the signing of an agreement under which Moscow will build and operate Venezuela’s first nuclear power plant. (One can’t help but wonder if Chavez is also trying to help smooth over troubled relations between Moscow and Iran.)

Of course, Chavez has been a familiar face in Tehran for a decade now. This week's visit will be his ninth since 2001, when he stated during his first trip to Iran that he intended “to prepare the road for peace, justice, stability, and progress for the 21st century.” Ties between the two countries only grew stronger after Ahmadinejad was elected in May 2005.

From the very beginning, the main thing that united these two populists was their shared condemnation of what they describe as “U.S. hegemony.” Chavez has been a staunch supporter of Tehran’s controversial nuclear projects and in 2008 declared Iran has a legitimate right to develop its nuclear program. At the same time, he said Venezuela is also “interested in developing nuclear energy.”

To Tehran’s unconcealed delight, Chavez announced in January 2009 that Venezuela was severing ties with Israel to protest its invasion of the Gaza Strip. The government of Bolivia had already cut ties with Israel for the same reason. Iran has been competing with Israel for influence in Central and South America. The region has been a prime target for Iran’s diplomacy in recent years, with a focus on improving ties with Venezuela and Bolivia.

Fast Flowering

In recent months, Iran has stepped up collaboration with Cuba and Nicaragua.

In May 2008, an Israeli website published a dossier purportedly drafted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry that detailed Iran’s activities in South America. Among other things, the dossier asserted that Venezuela has been supplying Iran with uranium. It also alleged that Tehran has set up Hezbollah cells in northern Venezuela and on Margarita Island.

If cooperation between Iran and Venezuela has indeed reached such a level, it has flowered rather quickly. Prior to 2005, the two countries had only minor bilateral ties for many years. But since Ahmadinejad became president, they have regularly signed agreements in a wide range of areas. In 2007, they agreed to develop a joint petrochemical plant and signed a raft of economic-cooperation accords. The next year, they set up Veniran, a joint project to assemble tractors and Iranian-designed cars for consumers in Latin America.

But three years later, none of these bilateral agreements has been fully realized and none of the envisioned joint ventures seems close to yielding concrete results. On paper, the agreements are worth in excess of $4.5 billion. But in reality, Venezuela’s trade with Iran was less than $100 million in 2009, according to Iran’s Chamber of Commerce.

Clearly, the only two Latin American countries that naturally offer Iran opportunities for economic cooperation are Brazil and Argentina, both of which have export capabilities that dwarf Venezuela’s. In comparison, economic cooperation between Tehran and Caracas is limited by geographical distance, a lack of cultural ties, and mismatched economic strengths, as well as by many other factors. The perception of common enemies has not proven a strong enough bond to overcome these real-world limitations.

Chavez and Ahmadinejad are likely to spend their three days together this week exchanging pleasantries and pretending that “strategic ties” between their two countries are strong and growing. In reality, though, the only ones certain of these ties are the two populist presidents themselves, leaders who have a talent for ignoring the real world.

Reza Taghizadeh is a regular contributor to RFE/RL's Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL