by Waseem Shehzad (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 5, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1441)
When the proxy war against Syria was launched in 2011, many Muslims bought into NATO’s “revolution” narrative. Some within the Muslim Ummah who understood the strategic regional dimension of the war against Syria, were puzzled by the depth of Islamic Iran’s involvement in backing the Syrian government. A similar surprise reaction can be observed among some Muslims regarding Iran’s principled support for the elected Venezuelan government. Why would Iran, which is itself under severe sanctions, open another front of confrontation with NATO regimes over Venezuela and is it all worth it? Below is an attempt to analyze these questions.
Prior to examining the economic, geopolitical and security aspect of Iran’s support for the people’s government in Venezuela, Tehran’s foreign policy principles must be clearly understood. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has conducted its foreign relations with other states based on the following parameters; 1) Friendly government or not hostile to the Islamic system in Iran; 2) not an imperialist regime and, 3) the state or entity itself is oppressed by imperialist powers.
Iran attempts to delicately balance the above three aspects in expanding its influence and deterring NATO regimes from toppling the Islamic system. For example, during the 1980s when the US instigated Saddam Husain of Iraq to attack Iran, even though Cuba maintained strong ties with Baghdad, Islamic Iran did not cut off relations with Havana since Cuba itself was a victim of US imperialism. Immediately after the Islamic Revolution, Tehran cut off all relations with apartheid South Africa and halted oil sales to the racist regime. Even though Iran was in desperate need of cash to secure the new revolutionary governing system, it adopted a principled stand.
Considering the foundations of the governing system in Iran and the existing geopolitical and economic realities of the world, Tehran is fully cognizant of the fact that abiding by its principles requires strategic calculations. It must determine when to be on the offensive and where to exercise patience and containment. One can see a clear example of this in Iran’s policies in Bahrain and Syria.
In Bahrain, where the overwhelming majority comprises Shia Muslims, Iran is not nearly as active as some would like it to be, as this would not aid the ideological aspects of its state system. As war criminal Henry Kissinger once accurately pointed out, Iran is not just a state; it is also a cause. Just like the US itself is not simply a nation-state, but a global driver of militant neoliberalism and cut-throat capitalism.
Keeping this in mind, let us take a closer look at why Islamic Iran sent oil shipments to Venezuela at the end of May and continues to do so even today. The latest Iranian tanker carrying spare parts for oil refineries entered Venezuelan waters on June 19.
Iran’s oil shipments to Venezuela are not a simple economic transaction. It is first and foremost a geopolitical game changer, an aspect best explained by the former Indian diplomat, M.K. Bhadrakumar. In his personal blog, Bhadrakumar pointed out that “in a historical context, this becomes a frontal assault by Iran on the Monroe Doctrine dating back to the 19th century, which in US foreign policy calculus regarded the Western Hemisphere as its sphere of influence… In geopolitical terms, Iran’s strategic defiance of the US in the Western Hemisphere makes an interesting case study not only of the decline in American influence in its backyard to the south but the entire efficacy of the ‘sphere of influence’ concept in contemporary world politics.”
From an economic standpoint, Iran’s supply of oil and its derivatives and food to Venezuela should be analyzed in a broader perspective and not just as a one item transaction. In purely economic terms, both countries frequently mention the utilization of barter trade mechanism. This would further weaken the clout of the US dollar and facilitate freer trade overall. By considering barter trade, Iran and Venezuela are laying the essential primary variables for freer and fairer trade which can take place even when it goes against Washington’s illegitimate imperialist agenda.
In May 2020, a former Iran OPEC ambassador, Mohammad Ali Khabtibi, proposed that countries under US sanctions should set up a club to facilitate trade amongst themselves based on the barter mechanism. It should also be kept in mind that Iran-Venezuela strategic economic cooperation is not new. In 2009, Iran and Venezuela started uranium explorations. In May 2020, the deputy head of Geological Survey and Mineral Explorations of Iran (GSI), identified Venezuela as one of the places where Iran would be interested in developing minerals. It cannot be ruled that the two sides have developed strong ties in the minerals sector since 2009.
On the security front, both Iran and Venezuela are faced with belligerent Western attempts to destabilize them in a very aggressive manner. Just like Iran, Venezuela represents a regional cause, rooted in socialism and Christian theology of liberation popular in South America. In Iran and in South America, religion plays a significant societal role. This creates an important cultural bridge for Iran into the grassroots Christian societies. Iran-Venezuela relations which are primarily based on principles rather than interests allow Islamic Iran to build a Muslim-Christian bond not agreed upon by elites at fancy conferences but via people to people diplomacy arrived at through common struggles and genuine bottom to top and top to bottom societal mechanisms.
Crescent International spoke to the prominent British-Muslim journalist, Ahmed Kaballo, who spent six weeks in Venezuela in 2019 making the documentary about the failed coup against the elected government in Caracas. Kaballo pointed to the great awareness among many ordinary Venezuelans about imperialist traps and policies in places like Libya, Syria and Iran. The British Muslim journalist said that while the Venezuelan government may not have the support of all of the people, the government is not divided into factions like the NATO-backed opposition. The Maduro government commands the support of a significant part of Venezuelan society. It seems that this reality makes policy makers in Tehran realize that their alliance with the Venezuelan government is a partnership with the strongest socio-political force in the country. Thus, the investment of building relations with it is worth it.
NATO regimes have been ringing alarm bells about Iran-Venezuela ties for more than 10 years and creating various hurdles for both parties. Nevertheless, Iran and Venezuela have continued to expand their partnership in various spheres despite NATO hostility. This trend indicates that the partnership is strategic for both sides and is going to grow after the belligerent presidency of Donald Trump comes to an end sooner than many analysts expect.