A stronger relationship between the two will trigger another headache for the US, but this time in its own hemisphere.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the president of Iran, the Islamic Republic made inroads across various Latin American countries. To the ire of Washington, Tehran deepened its links with left-wing governments in Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezueladuring those years.
Such relationships, which spoke volumes about the growth of South-South relations in the 21st century, were largely a product of shared grievances and a common determination to challenge US hegemony in a world growing more multipolar.
Today, the Trump administration’s foreign policy remains heavily focused on imposing “maximum pressure” on Iran. Although most discussions about this anti-Iranian agenda pertain to Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, there have been implications for Latin America.
The pressure that Washington has put on Argentina, Colombia, Honduras, and Paraguay to designate Hezbollah a “terrorist” organisation underscores the US administration’s determination to eject Tehran’s influence from Latin America.
Washington is now focusing energy on pressuring Venezuela, where Washington maintains that Hezbollah has its Western Hemisphere foothold, into severing its relations with Iran.
The Trump administration’s recent threats to use military force to prevent Iranian oil tankers from reaching the South American country underscore the extent to which the White House views the growth of Iranian-Venezuelan relations as a grave threat.
Earlier this month, Trump’s administration condemned Iran — plus China, Cuba, and Russia — for giving support to “the illegitimate and tyrannical regime of Nicolas Maduro,” and vowing to continue applying “maximum pressure” against Caracas “until Maduro's hold on Venezuela is over.”
Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary for US Department of State's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, accused Caracas of importing Iran’s “terror gasoline”.
Yet despite the US attempting to prevent the Islamic Republic and Maduro’s government from growing any closer, the Trump administration’s policies have had the polar opposite effect.
Today Iran and Venezuela are closer than ever before, largely because Washington’s efforts to bring down both governments have given these two countries virtually no choice but to turn to each other to circumvent American efforts to isolate and strangle Caracas and Tehran amid the global Covid-19 pandemic and period of collapsed oil prices.
Across Iran’s political spectrum, many voices have been celebrating their country’s successful delivery of oil shipments to Venezuela without any US interception.
One newspaper owned by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Javan, hailed the move as a demonstration of Iran’s “might under the nose of America” while others said that the deliveries “humiliated America.”
Maduro’s own statements, expressing gratitude for solidarity from the Islamic Republic, and the displays of Iranian flags in the Venezuelan capital say much about the country’s appreciation for Tehran’s help.
The Venezuelan president boasted that his country and Iran are “two rebel nations, two revolutionary nations that will never kneel down before US imperialism.”
Venezuela’s Minister of Energy Tareck El Aissami tweeted: “We keep moving forward and winning.”
As both Caracas and Tehran see it, the delivery of these tankers successfully called the Trump administration’s bluff and the US did not take actions to thwart the Islamic Republic from helping Maduro’s crisis-stricken government.
Undeniable is that the Tehran-Caracas partnership has reached new heights. The IRGC’s warning earlier this month about the US facing repercussions if America “acts like pirates” vis-a-vis Iranian fuel shipments to Venezuela was significant as one analyst explained, “Iran-Venezuela ties are close, but Iran typically reserves this kind of language for its proxy forces, rather than extra-regional countries.”
The growth of this partnership is an outcome of a common trend in international relations. States that are targeted by US sanctions tend to work together.
While Iran-Venezuela relations predate the ascendancy of both regimes and go back to the Shah’s era when the two countries were founding OPEC members, their current relationship is special for its geopolitical context.
A fair comparison is the Iran-North Korea partnership, which has evolved under rather similar circumstances. As Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared while visiting Pyongyang shortly after the Iran-Iraq war, “If big countries threaten progressive countries, then progressive countries should threaten them in turn.”
Iran-Venezuela ties have been, at least up until now, largely symbolic. Yet there is potential for the relationship to become more substantial. As one expert on Iranian foreign policy opined, there is “huge potential” for bilateral cooperation to boost significantly in the upcoming months and years.
If Trump is to secure a second term in November, the odds are good that his administration will continue efforts to topple Maduro’s government which could result in Caracas embracing military assistance from the Islamic Republic.
The technology behind Iranian missiles, which have deterred Tehran’s global and regional adversaries from striking against Iran’s homeland, could possibly be transferred to Venezuela in order to strengthen the South American country’s own defenses down the road.
Similar to how Iran and Russia worked in tandem to prevent their Syrian ally from falling from power throughout the post-2011 period, it is clear that Tehran is also joining Moscow in terms of investing resources and taking chances to ensure that Maduro does not fall in any US-backed coup or campaign of sabotage.
As Venezuela’s head of state said, “Venezuela has friends in this world, and brave friends at that.”
From the Iranian perspective, Tehran’s increased support for Caracas serves to remind Washington that the Islamic Republic not only challenges US interests in the Middle East, but also in America’s own “backyard”.
By establishing stronger ties with Maduro’s government, the Iranians will likely be able to enhance their ability to force the US to deal with unpredictable blowback in the Western Hemisphere should there be a continuation of “maximum pressure” on Tehran.
Put simply, the Iranian-Venezuelan partnership is a card that the regime in Tehran can continue playing in order to gain greater leverage as US-Iran brinkmanship remains intense.
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