Over the last decade Iran has developed close ties with some Latin American countries and has become exceptionally close with the pariah socialist regime of Venezuela, led by President Nicolás Maduro.
Colin P. Clarke, Director of Policy and Research at The Soufan Group, told Inside Arabia that by working closely with Venezuela, Iran can continue to be a thorn in the side of the United States, and attempt to project influence into the Western hemisphere. Clarke believes Iran is seeking to increase its soft power throughout Latin America, using Venezuela as an entry point.
Yet, it is important to contextualize the Iranian presence in South America. Elodie Brun, an expert on Latin America and professor-researcher at the Center for International Studies in Mexico City, told Inside Arabia that Iran’s Latin American ties have only occurred with a few countries in a significant way: Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, and to a lesser extent, Bolivia and Nicaragua. In addition, the intensity of these links has varied according to the heads of government in Latin America and in Iran.
An extremely important aspect of the projection of Iranian influence in this region concerns its telecommunications and audio-visual diplomatic activities. According to Pierre Pahlavi and Eric Ouellet from the Royal Military College of Canada, in order to cultivate Iran’s image as a champion of Islamic resistance against Western countries, Tehran’s audio-visual diplomacy enhances its reputation as an anti-imperialist force in non-Muslim countries.
It is in this vein that in December 2013, Hispan-TV— the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s (IRIB) Spanish language satellite-based network— was launched. Supported by the “Middle East” desk of the English language news network Press-TV, Pahlavi wrote that, since its launch, Hispan-TV has also benefited from a strategic partnership with the Venezuela-based, neo-Bolivarian television network TeleSUR. “In line with Iran’s forward defense strategy, this media breakthrough in Latin America aims at communicating directly with South American people and to create a permanent footprint in America’s courtyard,” Pahlavi and Ouellet wrote.
Hammered by heavy US sanctions, both Iran and Venezuela have been desperately searching for new allies to reduce the impact of US pressure.
Hammered by heavy US sanctions, both Iran and Venezuela have been desperately searching for new allies to reduce the impact of US pressure, so their growing cooperation should not come as a surprise. Tehran was more than happy to reach a deal with Venezuela to exchange gasoline and technical expertise to repair oil infrastructure in return for around half a billion US dollars of Venezuelan gold.
For cash strapped Venezuela, payment in gold is one of very few alternatives, while for Iran this kind of transaction is highly desirable as gold is hard to trace and can be easily smuggled. Although the US seized four Iranian tankers headed to Venezuela last year, Iran once again dispatched a flotilla of at least ten ships and tankers in December 2020, which are reportedly on their way to Venezuela.
While there is no denying these gestures helped Nicolás Maduro’s government to respond to gasoline shortages in Venezuela in the short term, Brun thinks that this move is insufficient to resolve the structural challenges that the Venezuelan energy sector is currently facing, after years of mismanagement and the more recent US sanctions. “I think the objective is primarily symbolic to make the solidarity between dissent regimes, particularly in their relations with the US, more visible,” she told Inside Arabia.
While Washington officials have closely monitored warming commercial ties between Tehran and Caracas, they have become particularly worried over the military aspects of their cooperation, which is understood as a response to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran. The Trump administration’s Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, warned both countries that the US would act if Iran sends missiles to Venezuela. “We will not accept, we will not tolerate, the placement in Venezuela of Iranian missiles that can reach the United States,” Abrams said.
Many observers wonder how the new Washington administration will respond to Tehran’s close military and commercial ties with Maduro.
Although there is no solid evidence of Iranian missiles in Venezuela, many observers wonder how the new Washington administration will respond to Tehran’s close military and commercial ties with Maduro; and, if this could be an additional leverage that Iran can use in any future negotiations with the Biden administration over its nuclear deal.
While Iran may view its involvement in Venezuela as a potential source of leverage, Clarke is not confident things will work out that way as he sees Iran playing the role of obstructionist, with few tangible policy levers that can be operationalized.
Moreover, according to Lieutenant Colonel of the Colombian Army and Special Forces Advisor Jeferson Guarin, the Venezuelan regime has proven to be a valuable asset for the Iran-Russia-China axis since the Maduro regime seeks to perpetuate itself over time (as in the case of Cuba).
“After the hard power policy handling of foreign relations with Iran by the Trump administration, we can expect a foreign policy marked by soft power during the Biden administration, thus allowing Iran to continue with its political, military, and economic relations with Venezuela,” Guarin told Inside Arabia; adding, “Therefore, it is unlikely that Iran will renounce its operations in Venezuela knowing that the position of the United States changes every four years.”
In December 2020, a Wall Street Journal article cited the head of the US Southern Command, Admiral Craig Faller, who asserted that elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) Al-Quds Force were sent to Venezuela to support President Maduro. However, many analysts including Brun have been rather cautious about these allegations. While there has been a recurrent debate about this issue in Washington, there has been no consensus among the different political actors regarding these reports. Indeed, it appears there is not sufficient evidence concerning the Al-Quds Force’s presence in Venezuela to keep Maduro in power.
According to Clarke, if there were a Hezbollah presence in Venezuela, there could also be IRGC personnel there as well. Guarin, also recalls that Cuba cooperated with Iran, to help build the Venezuelan security and defense architecture. “The expeditionary wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force, worked alongside Cuban intelligence in Venezuela to consolidate the regime’s hold,” he explained.
Since 2005, Iran has extended US$1.61 billion in loans to Havana, according to Guarin, and Tehran is heavily involved in several projects in Cuba, including a shared intelligence station to block US radio broadcasts. Nevertheless, some analysts seriously doubt that the Al-Quds Force would be operating in Venezuela in any meaningful numbers.
The presence of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which allegedly has crafted a close relationship with the Venezuelan regime, is an even greater mystery.
However, the presence of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which allegedly has crafted a close relationship with the Venezuelan regime, is an even greater mystery. Ever since the unsolved bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and a Jewish community center in 1994 in Buenos Aires – both blamed on Tehran and Hezbollah – there have been numerous allegations of their growing influence in South America, particularly in Venezuela.
Former US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, confirmed last year that Hezbollah, which IRGC is reportedly closely associated with, has active cells throughout South America—especially in Venezuela, with the approval of President Maduro. Clarke wrote that Margarita Island is a “Hezbollah safe haven,” while “the group’s tentacles extend into the upper reaches of Venezuela’s current government.”
Experts believe that the group has been present much further south of Venezuela for a long time, in the so-called tri-border area between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay—known to be a mecca for different types of illicit activities and contraband. Guarin explained that Hezbollah has become a transnational criminal organization with the capacity to launder large amounts of money and move it through legal and illegal networks. Venezuela’s geo-strategic location allows it to access tax haven countries in the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. According to the US, Maduro heads the so-called “Cartel of the Suns” state-backed drug cartel.
Guarin added that these reports are not only confirmed by intelligence sources from the United States, England, and Israel, but also by countries such as Brazil and Colombia, where the criminal convergence of FARC – the Colombian leftist guerrilla group – and Hezbollah in Venezuelan territory, with regard to cocaine trafficking and money laundering, has been demonstrated.
In March 2020, the US Justice Department indicted the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, and other top-ranking officials, including member of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Adel El Zabayar, and Venezuela’s Minister of Petroleum, Tareck El Aissami Maddah, for coordinating the transport of cocaine with Colombia’s FARC guerrillas and facilitating a “cocaine-for-weapons” scheme between Hezbollah and Colombia’s FARC.
However, some researchers, among them Phil Gunson – Senior Analyst for the Andes region at the International Crisis Group – have expressed deep skepticism over these US claims and alleged close ties between Hezbollah and Venezuela’s top political echelon. In a similar vein, Kristen Martinez-Gugerli, Venezuela Program Assistant of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said that that these reports have often been exaggerated by US officials.
Washington has tried to stretch the “axis of evil” to include Maduro’s Venezuela and present the political crisis in Venezuela as a direct threat to US security.
In past years, Washington has tried to stretch the “axis of evil” to include Maduro’s Venezuela and present the political crisis in Venezuela as a direct threat to US security. However, Venezuela is not a cocaine producing country, nor is it a major transit route for Colombian cocaine. Therefore, in Gunson’s words, “the Cartel of the Suns is largely imaginary.” According to Martinez-Gugerli, the arm of Hezbollah present in Venezuela appears to be political, rather than one plotting any terrorist attacks.
Nevertheless, in Guarin’s view, the support of China, Russia, and Iran guarantees the permanence of President Maduro in Venezuela by replicating the Cuban regime, making Venezuela a potentially destabilizing factor for Latin America. For this reason, it can be concluded that these ties will be maintained with the overarching interest of creating a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) environment in the US’ backyard.