Last week, Iran rolled out the red carpet for an unlikely dignitary. The visitor wasn't Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the spiritual head of the Hezbollah Shi'ite militia Iran created in Lebanon in the early 1980s and has sustained since. Nor was it Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's newly-reconfirmed prime minister, whom—having failed to supplant in favor of a more pliable politician in recent elections—Tehran is now actively courting. Rather, the head-of-state that garnered Tehran's most lavish diplomatic reception was none other than Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, who over the past decade has emerged as one of Iran's most dependable international allies.
The partnership between Tehran and Caracas dates back to the spring of 2001, when Venezuela's president, then still solidifying his anti-imperialist and anti-American credentials, made his inaugural trek to the Islamic Republic to "prepare the road for peace, justice, stability, and progress for the 21st century." Since that time, cooperation between the two countries has blossomed into one of the cardinal tenets of Venezuelan foreign policy. Indeed, during his most recent visit to Iran (his ninth to date), Chavez asserted that continued partnership with Iran's ayatollahs in the face of international pressure was nothing short of a "holy task" for his government.
Caracas has backed its words with concrete action. As part of a purported November 2008 Memorandum of Understanding, Iran is now helping Venezuela explore and extract uranium on its territory, with considerable success. The Wall Street Journal's Brett Stephens has reported that Iran is currently mining near Venezuela's border with Guyana, adjacent to where a Canadian company recently uncovered what could be one of the world's largest deposits of naturally-occurring uranium.
Such cooperation is a potential game-changer in Iran's nuclear calculus. For all its atomic bluster, the regime in Tehran lacks enough indigenous raw material necessary for a nuclear capability. Western nations understand this very well, and in the past have attempted to put the squeeze on Iran's uranium trade, reaching out to potential suppliers (such as Kazakhstan) in an effort to convince them not to do business with the Islamic Republic on this front. Chavez, however, has rejected those overtures, opting for partnership with Tehran over cooperation with the United States and its allies.
The symbiosis does not end there. Amid mounting international pressure on Iran's nuclear program, Venezuela's strongman also has offered to help Tehran skirt sanctions. On the heels of Congressional passage of comprehensive energy sanctions against Iran this summer, Venezuela's envoy to Tehran reiterated his government's offer, made last year, to export as much as 20,000 barrels of gasoline daily to the Islamic Republic. Needless to say, should it materialize this commitment will deal a serious blow to American efforts to apply economic pressure on what is perhaps Iran's Achilles' heel: its heavy reliance on foreign refined petroleum.
Most recently, Iran and Venezuela have announced plans to establish a joint oil shipping company, and explored the possibility of Venezuelan investment in Iran's mammoth South Pars natural gas field. Both steps, knowledgeable observers say, are designed to facilitate sanctions-busting on the part of the Iranian regime.
Iran has reciprocated in kind. Intelligence sources believe that elements of Iran's clerical army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have been training Venezuela's secret services and police since 2006. With Iran's help, Venezuela has also been dipping its toe into nuclear development, quietly but methodically developing the infrastructure necessary for the Chavez regime to eventually become an atomic stakeholder.
Underpinning this cooperation is a deep-seated anti-Americanism—and a shared dream of hegemony in their respective regions. "Like his inspiration, the revolutionary Simón Bolívar, Venezuela's president desires a unified Latin America under a single government," Latin American expert Luis Fleischmann has explained. "Toward that end, Chávez is actively working to cobble together a new Latin American body politic—one modeled in his own image and with Venezuela at its center." As a result, Chavez in recent years has agitated in favor of diminishing America's economic influence in the region, established a pan-Latin American television station (dubbed "TeleSur") to promote his radical message, and worked to tilt regional neighbors like Bolivia and Brazil in a more anti-U.S. direction.
If all this sounds familiar, that's because it is. During his recent jaunt through New York, Ahmadinejad took pains to articulate a strikingly similar vision. "[T]he Iranian nation and the majority of the world's nations and governments are against the current discriminatory management of the world," Ahmadinejad said in his September 23rd speech before the United Nations General Assembly. The message couldn't be any clearer: Iran is seeking to erect a new world order capable of diluting the power of the United States.
The countries of Latin America rank high on Ahmadinejad's list of potential partners in this endeavor, which is why Iran's economic ties to Latin America have ballooned over the past half-decade. Late last year, the International Monetary Fund estimated that Iran's trade with the region had tripled over the past several years, and now stands at some $2.9 billion. And while Venezuela may not be Iran's most important economic partner in the region, its assistance to Iran's nuclear program—and its enduring commitment to opposing the United States—has made it Tehran's most dependable strategic asset there. Perhaps the clearest sign of this came in 2006, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presented Chavez with his country's prestigious Islamic Republic medal as a reward for Venezuela's "support for Iran's stance on the international scene."
Chavez's response on that occasion was telling: "Let's save the human race, let's finish off the U.S. empire." That message, reiterated during the Venezuelan president's most recent visit to Tehran, goes a long way toward explaining why Iran's ayatollahs see Chavez as an ally—and why we should view him as an adversary.