Iran and Venezuela: a strategic partnership

By Joseph Humire *
June 10, 2021

Colombian President Iván Duque raised his eyebrows in August 2020 when he said Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro regime was looking to acquire medium and long range missiles from the Islamic Republic of Iran. The claim comes against the backdrop of increased trade cooperation between Tehran and Caracas in 2020, sending more than 2.35 million barrels of gasoline to the Maduro regime in exchange for no less than 9 tonnes, or 500 million dollars. dollars, gold to Iran.

At first glance, this commercial exchange appears to be transactional and opportunistic, based on the need for both regimes. On closer inspection, however, this trade cooperation has military dimensions and overlaps with a network of front companies of the Iranian clerical army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Beyond opportunism, Iran and Venezuela have formed a mutually beneficial strategic partnership that serves to fortify Maduro’s regime and lessen Iran’s natural geographic disadvantage with the United States.

The Chavez years

Iran was active in Venezuela before the rise of Hugo Chávez at the turn of the century. Yet its presence was largely limited to cultural, diplomatic and perhaps intelligence activities. During Chávez’s tenure, Iran’s role in Venezuela expanded to include a military relationship that was far from transparent.

From 2004 to 2013, Iran signed several energy and military cooperation agreements with Venezuela. Most of these deals have been overvalued, under-fulfilled, and never materialized from a business perspective. They did, however, serve a strategic objective in helping Iran to circumvent international sanctions and the UN arms embargo of 2007. According to a former US Under Secretary of the Treasury, “Iran is trying to protect its activities. supply behind a maze of entities, essentially by fooling those who still do business with Iran to facilitate illicit transactions for the transport of dual-use missile-related items ”.

“Iran is trying to protect its procurement activities behind a maze of entities, essentially by deceiving those who still do business with Iran to facilitate illicit transactions for the transport of dual-use missile-related items.” , said the former US Under Secretary of the Treasury.

Part of Iran’s global illicit supply network is nestled in Venezuela. A binational fund, bank and line of credit have been established between Iran and Venezuela, to give the Islamic Republic a larger financial footprint in Latin America. Conservative estimates, summing the reported values ​​of known joint ventures, capitalizations, loans and investments, indicate that the Iranian regime accessed more than $ 16 billion through the Venezuelan financial system during this period. This was done through some 270 bilateral agreements from more than 60 projects and more than 80 Iranian companies in Venezuela. A fraction was used in joint military projects which, at the time, were heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe for its potential dual use in Iran’s strategic weapons programs.

These joint military projects managed by the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) and the Venezuelan military company CAVIM have protected the financial transactions of sanctioned Iranian entities through the Venezuelan oil industry. A large number of front companies linked to the IRGC began operating in Venezuela, including Parchin Chemical Industries, which featured prominently in United Nations Security Council resolution 1747 as an entity involved in Iran’s missile programs. and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For its part, Qods Aviation, another IRGC-sanctioned shell company, arrived next to El Libertador airbase in Maracay, Venezuelan Aragua state, to teach the Venezuelan military how to produce aircraft. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The following diagram shows only a small part of the Venezuela-Iran military-industrial complex which managed joint projects on drones, jet engines, ammunition manufacturing and helicopter parts, establishing a program. evasion of sanctions during the Chávez years which is a precedent Iran’s “commercial” activities in Venezuela today.

The Maduro years

An employee of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA waves an Iranian flag as Iranian-flagged tanker Fortune docks at the El Palito refinery in Puerto Cabello, northern Carabobo state, Venezuela, May 25, 2020. (Photo :
Getty Images)

The death of Chávez in 2013 led to some speculation about the decline of strategic ties between Tehran and Caracas. This is incorrect. After a two-year transition period, joint Iran-Venezuela cooperation resumed in 2015, when Maduro visited Tehran twice, and in 2016, when Hassan Rouhani made his first and only trip to Venezuela for a annual summit of the non-aligned. Movement on Margarita Island. A series of bilateral agreements have been signed between the two countries in the fields of science, nanotechnology, petroleum and agriculture.

In 2017, the IRGC used Venezuela as a transshipment hub for strategic minerals, metals, materials and technologies acquired across Latin America in support of its growing weapons and WMD programs in Iran. Most importantly, Iran marked 2020 on the calendar in 2015 after signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran understood that it only had a few years to legitimize its “commercial” footprint in Venezuela if it wanted to capitalize on the expiration of the UN arms embargo on October 18, 2020.

As Iran reaped the financial benefits of the JCPOA nuclear deal, the Venezuelan economy collapsed. Despite sitting on one of the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela has faced massive fuel shortages. This opened the door for Iran in 2020 to send fuel, food, technicians and even open its first supermarket in Caracas, legitimizing its seemingly innocuous business activity to bolster its military presence in the future. In 2020, Iran erected an air and sea bridge across the Atlantic that relies on an IRGC network in third countries creating several routes between Iran and Venezuela. An example is Algeria and Serbia as refueling stops for the air route and South Africa as an alternative bypass point for the sea route between Iran and Venezuela.

The sea bridge allows the IRGC to use various maritime evasion tactics, such as changing the flag, renaming, repainting, and disabling transponders mid-trip in order for Iranian ships to successfully arrive in Venezuela. Nonetheless, the cargo of some Iranian tankers was seized in 2020 thanks to the United States’ civil confiscation efforts. Yet Iran continues its quest to legitimize its presence in Venezuela.

For Iran and the Maduro regime, the key is to move from a sanctions evasion program, implemented during the Chávez years, to a sanctions resistance strategy that relies on a joint victimization narrative that delegitimizes the use and effectiveness of US and international sanctions. If successful, Iran will likely step up its military presence in Venezuela as Maduro’s regime seeks to threaten its neighbors in Guyana, Brazil and Colombia.

The multipolar force

The Maduro regime’s expansionist strategy in Latin America and the Caribbean is supported by external state actors. On November 6, 2020, Maduro announced the creation of a new scientific and military commission within the Venezuelan armed forces that will seek to modernize Venezuela’s weapons systems. Although Maduro did not specify which systems he would upgrade, he did mention that this new council would have advisers from Russia, China and Iran. Tehran’s recent 25-year strategic deal with Beijing and the extension of a 20-year arms deal with Moscow will likely benefit Venezuela’s new defense commission, establishing a multipolar military force in Venezuela that fortifies Maduro’s regime.

In January 2019, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami arrived in Caracas to attend Maduro’s second inauguration, further strengthening defense cooperation between Iran and Venezuela. Later that year, as the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela raged, Venezuelan armed forces competed in the Russia 2019 International Military Games along with Russia and China. At the end of the year, Russia, Iran and China conducted, for the first time, joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Most recently, the trio held similar naval exercises in the northern Indian Ocean in mid-February 2021.

For the moment, this joint military cooperation is on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, Russia continues to strengthen its presence of military contractors in Venezuela, while China offers shadow support. Iran, however, appears to be the linchpin of this new multipolar force as it builds its air and sea bridge to Venezuela, making its strategic partnership with the Maduro regime perhaps its most successful investment outside. from the Middle-East.

Joseph M. Humire is an expert on cross-regional threats in the Americas and the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), a national security think tank based in Washington DC. He is also co-author of the book: “Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America” (Lexington Books, 2014).

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