Over his fourteen year reign, the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez developed strong political ties to Iran: visiting that country several times and hosting Iranian presidents on reciprocal visits. Since then, spring boarding off of these Venezuelan ties, Iran has spread its tendrils into Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Brazil. Yet with Chávez deceased, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stepping down to be replaced by an ostensibly reform-minded successor, what – if anything – does the future have in store for this political odd couple?
At first glance, Iran and Venezuela may seem an unlikely match: more a recipe for redundancy than synergy. Both are relatively autocratic and rich in oil, rentier states with poorly diversified economies.
And while geopolitical friendships between states can likewise be predicated on shared culture or values, here Venezuela and Iran might also seem mismatched. Socially, Venezuela has always been very progressive – among the first countries to allow for absolute freedom of religion and in 1863, the first country in the world to outlaw capital punishment. Meanwhile, Iran is heavily theocratic, legally imposing Islamic social conservatism, and with a justice system that executes more prisoners per capita (often publically) than any other country in the world.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the cultural differences more aptly however than an incident that took place in March 2013, during Hugo Chavez’s funeral. A picture surfaced showing Iranian president Ahmadinejad embracing Elena Chávez, the grieving elderly mother of his deceased friend. In Iran, where public physical contact between women and men is strictly forbidden barring a close family relationship, the result was a scandal. Ahmadinejad eventually announced that the photograph had been photo-shopped by some shadowy cabal of his enemies seeking to discredit him.
Yet regardless of these complicating factors there exists a strong connection. Under the respective administrations of Messrs. Chávez and Ahmadinejad there were two bellicose and opinionated “revolutionary” countries fallen upon hard times and nostalgic for remembered past glories.
Both countries have likewise isolated themselves, by design, from much of the international establishment – instead, seeking to trade resource wealth for influence among their respective smaller, weaker neighbors – and in this regard both see the United States as their principle enemy. In a speech at the University of Tehran, for example, Chavez, according to Reuters, claimed, “If the U.S. Empire succeeds in consolidating its dominance, then humankind has no future. Therefore, we have to save humankind and put an end to the U.S. Empire.”
Yet now, given that they never did get around to ending the Empire, does this alliance still have a future? The answer to this question will be of no small consequence to the world as a whole. It will extend beyond their role as a self-proclaimed rhetorical international disestablishment: an Axis of Insults.
The alliance between these two countries has generated concerns beyond the rhetoric. They have provided financial benefits to poorer neighbors and generated security risks to a great many others. Some commentators, more than a few of them Republican congressmen, have publically surmised that Iran might have been using Caracas as a staging ground for terrorist plots throughout the Western hemisphere, although a State Department report released last week would seem to belie that fact.
Others believe that Iran’s true interest’s lies in accessing Latin America’s largely undeveloped uranium reserves, in hopes of advancing its ambitions towards the status of a nuclear power. What cannot be denied is that there are, at present, numerous Iranian agents active in Latin America operating at various official levels. The Iranian security apparatus has been instrumental in teaching Chavista security forces to more efficiently repress dissent among their own people. (The Venezuelan Jewish community, once among the largest in Latin America, has been a particular target.)
So what happens next? Venezuela’s new president, Nicolas Maduro, has announced that he will meet soon with Iran’s new president-elect, Hassan Rowhani. And while neither country has provided any details, if Rowhani is the moderate he is touted to be, he may well seek better relations with Europe and the United States, advanced economies capable of engaging with Iran on more than a rhetorical level. Meanwhile, barring some unforeseen crisis precipitating the collapse of regime in Caracas, the Venezuelan government seems unlikely to do likewise. Under fire from accusations of having stolen the recent election, Maduro’s domestic legitimacy is predicated primarily on his having been fingered by Chávez himself as successor, rather than on any personal charisma or qualifications. Under these circumstances, seeking rapprochement with “The Empire,” so often vilified by his hallowed predecessor, would be a dangerous game.
In geopolitics, much as in interpersonal relationships, countries sometimes outgrow each other. For an Iran that might finally be coming of age, maintaining close ties with declining, unpopular Venezuela, would be no great benefit, and might hold back a more fruitful potential dalliance with the West.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez is a fellow at The Comparative Constitutions Project and a columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus at Booth School of Business and can be reached at email@example.com.