by Marjan Asi (Background, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 3, Jumada' al-Ula', 1431)
Since the Second World War, the US, Britain’s upstart North American cousin, has supplanted London in carrying the white man’s burden. If British policy was characterized by cunning and guile, America has carried out cowboy style raids into others’ lands in pursuit of its “Manifest Destiny”.
The former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had admitted that Britain had no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Churchill, however, was not being entirely honest; greed and imperial hubris would be much closer to the truth in defining British and indeed western policies toward the rest of the world. Graveyards are full of the West’s former close friends.
Since the Second World War, the US, Britain’s upstart North American cousin, has supplanted London in carrying the white man’s burden. If British policy was characterized by cunning and guile, America has carried out cowboy style raids into others’ lands in pursuit of its “Manifest Destiny”. In the process, countries have been ravaged and impoverished in Uncle Sam’s quest to satiate his unbridled greed and to live the rapacious lifestyle called the American dream. For much of the last 50 years, countries in the Third World have had to submit to Uncle Sam’s demands but something is stirring in the world and gradually, people are beginning to stand up to big bully America.
This is most clearly visible in a new power bloc emerging on the global scene. This bloc derives its strength from countries that are linked in economic, political, and military domains. But the truly unique focus of this bloc lies in its decision to challenge US policies whose impetus derives from the disdain they feel because these policies affect them directly. Iran’s growing ties with China, Russia, Bolivia, Ecuador,Nicaragua, and even Brazil is one manifestation of this phenomenon. Even more striking is Iran’s deepening ties with Venezuela.
At a superficial level, the two countries may appear to have little in common, at least in terms of historic commonalities between political allies. They speak different languages, follow different religions, and have different traditions with no historical ties and are even geographically located on opposite sides of the world. Yet, in the past decade, Iran and Venezuela have become increasingly intertwined economically, politically, and to a certain extent ideologically. What accounts for this puzzling paradox? Behold, US imperialism, more commonly referred to as interventionism in contemporary political discourse.
To understand the strengthening ties between Iran and Venezuela, it is essential to briefly examine their histories vis-a-vis the US. Both have suffered US interventionist policies and their destructive consequences. The common denominator for US involvement in Iran and Venezuela was oil, discovered in both countries in the early 20th century. US policy in Iran deepened during the Shah’s regime in order to profit from its most valuable natural resource: oil. It was an unequal relationship, obviously favourable to the US whose policies were carried out by its proxy, the Shah. The relationship was briefly interrupted in the early 1950s when Mohammad Mossadeq became Iran’s Prime Minister. Since Mossadeq wanted to nationalize oil, the US (and Britain that still carried some weight in power politics) felt threatened that they would lose control of a precious resource. In typical American style, the CIA, in conjunction with Britain’s intelligence agency, carried out a coup toppling Mossadeq’s government and reinstated the Shah.
Iranians who protested against and resisted the Shah’s oppressive rule and deference to the US were jailed, tortured, and/or killed. Yet despite full US-backing, the Shah could not withstand the Islamic tide, resulting in 1979 in the Islamic Revolution in Iran that established the first functioning Islamic state in modern times. Fully aware of the real power behind the Shah’s oppressive and humiliating policies, the leader of the new Islamic state, Imam Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini, gave the US a name befitting its role in Iranian and indeed, many third world countries’ affairs, Shaytan-e Buzurg (the Great Satan).
The “loss” of one of the largest known oil-producing countries in the world was an economic blow to Washington cowboys who have been trying to topple the Islamic Republic of Iran ever since. The US has assaulted Iran using a variety of tools: hostile foreign policy and propaganda, and financial, intelligence, and military support of Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war. As if the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims on both sides as a result of the war was not enough reason to nurture enmity toward the US, its more recent sanctions, exerting pressure on the international community to cut relations with Iran, and its meddling in the recent elections continuously stoke hostile feelings among Iranians.
Venezuela’s history bears striking resemblance to that of Iran. Like Iran, US involvement with Venezuela began with the discovery of oil in the early part of the 20th century. Being one of the world’s biggest oil producers, petrodollars made the rulers of Venezuela very wealthy in a short period of time.
The tiny but corrupt elites who profited from Venezuela’s oil began to buy land and by 1950, 80% of the land was owned by a mere 2% of the people. This extremely wide gap between the rich and poor did not change in the coming decades. Though at times there was an illusion of democracy, many coups took place in which one dictator replaced another, all with the backing of the US. That is until Hugo Chavezemerged on the scene.
In 1992 Chavez led a failed military attempt against the corrupt regime of Carlos Andres Perez. He landed in jail but was pardoned two years later by then President Rafael Caldera. Chavez began campaigning for the presidency soon thereafter; in 1998 he won convincingly and has remained in power since despite a US-backed coup attempt in 2002 that fizzled out after a couple of weeks. Not surprisingly, the US denied involvement as it had done in the coup that overthrew Mossadeq’s government half a century earlier although its illegal role is now widely recognized and even admitted by some US officials.
Today, Chavez finds wide support and popularity among the Venezuelan people, while criticism against his administration comes from the elites and upper classes. These groups feel that their privileged position will be threatened by Chavez’s social reform policies including land reform, food subsidies, and free healthcare. Additionally, since Chavez took office, the number of people below the poverty line has declined, primary school enrolment has increased, and life expectancy has risen. But these are things rarely mentioned in the mainstream media that prefer to focus only on his anti-American rhetoric.
So what can be said about Iran-Venezuela relations? Both countries were exploited by the US because of their natural resources, particularly oil. Washington repeatedly tried to place only those people in power that will toe its political/economic line. Both countries have fought against these imperialist machinations, one through a revolution and the other through elections. Not surprisingly both continue to be attacked and undermined by the US and its allies. In the post-colonial world, such attacks are carried out in the form of sanctions and demonization.
It is, therefore, not so puzzling that cooperation between the two countries has resulted in Memoranda of Understanding in scientific and technological fields, finance and banking, mining, and oil exploration and refining. Iranian investment has opened factories and plants in Venezuela to produce a variety of goods including bicycles, cars, dairy products, ammunition, and cement.
Both countries are also broadening their economic and diplomatic relations with such rising powers as China, Russia, and Brazil. Venezuela is increasing its oil export to China in order to decrease its sales to the US to whom it currently exports half its oil. The oil sector alone accounts for 75 percent of Venezuela’s total export earnings and 50% of government revenues. For the US, Venezuelan oil accounts for 10% of its imports As Venezuela taps into the increasingly demanding Chinese energy market for its oil exports, the US looks nervously to find replacements for its unsatiable appetite.
Additionally, the first Venezuelan telecommunications satellite was launched from China. Beijing has also agreed to a $12 billion bilateral investment fund and in the latest development between the two countries, Chavez announced in April that China had agreed to lend it $20 billion. In the same month, Russia announced arms sales to Venezuela worth $5 billion.
Iran is similarly more engaged with its neighbour to the north. Although their relationship is shaky and tenuous, they are tied through energy, agriculture, and telecommunications agreements. China is a more stable, permanent trade partner of the Islamic Republic, importing oil and exporting merchandise and military equipment to Iran.
Iran has also reached out to many Latin American countries with embassies in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay with the latter six opening in the past five years. Venezuela has taken on a leadership role in Latin America and the Caribbean, launching the regional integration project known as ALBA, organizing Petrocaribe to garner political support of Caribbean countries by subsidizing oil prices, and successfully bringing Venezuela into the MERCUSOR trading bloc.
The meddlesome US is not sitting idly by while Iran and Venezuela strengthen bilateral ties and expand them globally. Rather, Washington continues to use the bogey of the non-existent threat from these independent-minded countries to whip up global hysteria against them. Many US think tanks and political scientists have started proclaiming the Iran-Venezuela alliance as dangerous, “a global virus of instability”, according to the Foreign Policy Association. The Carnegie Foundation speculated that Venezuela may be mining uranium for Iran’s nuclear program. Brookings’ Robert Morgenthau has claimed that this partnership may produce “poisonous fruit”. His accusations include “Hezbollah supporters in South America are engaged in the trafficking of narcotics” and Iranian investments in Venezuela serving as cover-ups “for the illicit production of weapons.” In an article titled “The Tehran-Caracas Nuclear Axis” The Wall Street Journal declared: “forty-seven years ago, Americans woke up to the fact that a distant power could threaten us much closer to home. Perhaps it’s time Camelot 2.0 take note that we are now on course for a replay.”
These alarmist accusations and near hysteria shed light on the pressure Washington is beginning to feel. The US has tried in recent years to break both governments in the alliance (the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela and instigations in the post-election turmoil in Iran). When that didn’t work, it has tried international pressure, exclusion, and sanctions. Now that these do not seem to gain much traction, with Russia and China refusing to sign on to sanctions aimed at weakening Iran and Venezuela, the US is pushing for a call to arms.
But with US economy hemorrhaging both at home and abroad with two wars it cannot finance, these threats ring hollow. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates indirectly admitted this when he declared in April: “I certainly don’t see Venezuela at this point as a military challenge or threat.” He dismissed the Iran-Venezuela alliance as “distracting their own populations from the difficulties that they have by... trying to strut around the world stage.” Considering the influence the two countries have gained globally and the dwindling US economic and political dominance, it appears Washington is doing the strutting and the Iran-Venezuela alliance is positioning itself for the new global power bloc.