According to experts, a recently signed cooperation agreement between Iran and Venezuela will further connect the economies of the two pariah regimes, but one oil-rich and legitimacy-poor state cannot address the problems of another.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro appeared on Iranian state television on Saturday in north Tehran to sign a 20-year “cooperation pact” with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
According to Raisi, the two countries would collaborate in the fields of oil, petrochemicals, military, agriculture, tourism, and culture. But, more than economics, the US and its sanctions regime against each country, as well as the two countries’ relationships with the rest of the world, loomed large in the signing of the deal — an unlikely alliance between a Shiite theocratic regime on one side and a communist dictatorship on the other.
“Venezuela has demonstrated exceptional resilience to sanctions and threats from adversaries and imperialists,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi stated. “The 20-year collaboration document demonstrates the two countries’ desire to strengthen ties.”
“The Iranian nation has faced numerous sanctions and threats over the past 40 years, but the Iranian nation has converted these restrictions into a chance for the country’s progress.”
However, according to Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow with Chatham House’s MENA Program, the agreement fails to address the basic issue in both countries: “bad governance.”
“Iran and Venezuela might be two of the world’s wealthiest countries, but they aren’t,” he said to Arab News. “Looking at their natural resources, especially Venezuela’s natural reserves, their oil businesses are in shambles.”
Both Venezuela and Iran should be thriving now that demand for oil and gas is surging — but their governments have stopped the “gold rush” that other energy-exporting countries are enjoying and exploiting to prepare for the post-fossil-fuel era.
“Iran and Venezuela are countries that have the potential to flourish; their issue is poor governance.” Whether they’re from the left or the right, they’re all failed states,” Mekelberg added.
He also noted that both countries have tense relations with the United States and the rest of the international community.
“Their coalition is an alliance of those who, because of sanctions, can’t really deal with their own domestic issues and therefore get in trouble with their own areas, so they’re trying to find a way out by supporting one other,” he explained.
“Everything has an intrinsic logic to it, but I don’t think it’ll assist them much.” They must deal with the outside world. “It takes two failed economies to make one successful economy.”
Is the agreement made in Tehran helping to boost their economy in terms of energy, which is each country’s principal export?
“They are not going to export to each other,” Mekelberg added, despite the fact that Iran and Venezuela are both big oil and energy producers.
However, there has been some improvement in the sharing of expertise between the two countries. Iranian experts have been working in Venezuela to restore run-down facilities and will shortly begin work on the country’s largest refinery.
“But what they truly need is investment,” Mekelberg added, something he doesn’t believe either country can provide in sufficient quantities.
While the deal’s economic features are unlikely to raise many eyebrows — the two have been cooperating in the illegal exchange of oil and other commodities for years — the possibility for more defense collaboration is likely to worry some in South America, the Middle East, and the United States.
Venezuela and Iran began military cooperation in 2006. A New York district attorney highlighted concerns about Iran’s training of Venezuelan fighters to be Hezbollah-style terrorists in a lecture to the Brookings Institution in 2009.
“It has been stated that Iranian military instructors have been embedded with Venezuelan troops since 2006,” according to the late Robert Morgenthau. “Asymmetric warfare, which is taught to members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, and Hamas, has supplanted US army field manuals as the conventional military doctrine in Venezuela.”
The possibility of nuclear cooperation is also a source of concern. Venezuela has an estimated 50,000 tons of uranium resources ready to be extracted, according to a 2008 research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
While academics have warned for years about the dangers of nuclear cooperation, the stalling progress in the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, along with ever-shorter breakout periods expected by experts, means that the new pact could play an outsized role in Iran’s nuclear weapons development.
“Venezuela’s support for Iran’s nuclear program has fluctuated in recent years,” said Rhiannon Phillips, associate analyst MENA at political risk consultancy Sibylline. “Intelligence sources previously indicated that (the late President Hugo) Chavez discussed purchasing uranium from Iran at the same time as entering talks to buy a nuclear reactor from Argentina,” she said.
“Cooperation on ‘military projects’ could be a reference to Iranian partnerships on offensive and combat drone technology, causing worry among Western allies.” This isn’t a new trend; earlier this year, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz expressed his alarm over Iranian MoHajjer UAVs in Venezuela, which had reported ranges of up to 200 kilometers.”
“Iran’s support for terrorism is already a fundamental driver of geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East, notably between Tehran (on the one hand) and Saudi Arabia and Israel (on the other,” Phillips noted (on the other hand). However, if Venezuelan capabilities reach or violate the regional security threshold, it may raise worries among Latin American countries. Notably, Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, has expressed alarm about the existence of Iranian proxies in Venezuela, specifically Hezbollah fighters, and the possibility that these groups could want to use Iranian military technology to carry out domestic assaults.”
Phillips also stated that Iran has a long history of involvement in Middle Eastern terrorism, which the Iran-Venezuela cooperation deal threatens to reignite.
The suicide bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Argentina by the AMIA group in 1994 killed 85 people and injured hundreds more. Argentina’s prosecutors charged the Iranian government and Hezbollah with carrying out the bombing in 2006.
Argentina, it appears, has not forgotten about the attack.
On Sunday, Argentinian authorities grounded a Boeing 747 that had been sold to Venezuela by Mahan Air, an Iranian airline strongly affiliated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and sanctioned by the US government.
The jet was carrying 14 Venezuelans and 5 Iranians, according to an Argentinian Interior Ministry document given by Reuters by Argentine congressman Gerardo Milman. “Our information is that this is a jet that has arrived to do intelligence in Argentina,” Milman cautioned.
It’s unclear what the agents were looking into. What is evident is that Argentina, which is intimately and tragically familiar with Iranian terrorism, is unwilling to find out.