quinta-feira, janeiro 07, 2010

559) Chavez-Ahmadinejad, Venezuela-Iran, all against the Empire

The Chavezjad Doctrine: Between Myth and Speculation
By Michael Shifter
Poder, January 5, 2010

Una versión de este articulo en español está disponible aquí.

Hugo Chavez, a skilled provocateur, has over the course of his eleven-year rule in Venezuela forged political alliances with an array of governments that share his zeal for needling and defying the United States. Chavez’s political strategy, after all, is based on accumulating power, and despite its considerable difficulties and relative decline, the US remains the world’s preeminent power. Given that Latin America (not to mention Venezuela) is too small a player for his outsized ambitions, Chavez has naturally sought to make friends across the globe -- if for no other purpose than to irk Washington. No alliance has been as satisfying for Chavez in this regard as the one he has developed with Iran, which has grown especially close since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005.

The Venezuela-Iran relationship predates both Ahmadinejad and Chavez, going as far back as the 1960s, when both governments were founding members of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). Yet it was after major changes in each country’s political situations—the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Chavez’s ascension to power via the ballot box two decades later—that shared interests beyond the oil market gained saliency. Iran and Venezuela began to take advantage of their prized resource not only to become relevant players on the world stage, but also to support the shared goal of curtailing US influence across the globe. At present, there is not much daylight between the geo-political goals being pursued by Chavez and Ahmadinejad. Their common enemy is the US, and each president’s posture towards America could well result in reckless conduct.

The key question is whether the Venezuela-Iran relationship can best be understood as merely a political alliance –that is, a byproduct of self-interested jockeying and rapidly shifting poles of power in the world --or rather as something more sinister meriting an energetic response from the United States and other governments concerned about peace and security in the Americas. Apart from irritating Washington, what does Venezuela gain from the alliance? And what are the possible benefits for Iran in its global strategy?

An Unclear Relationship

Such questions are not easy to answer. Much of the Venezuela-Iran relationship remains obscure, making it the subject of endless speculation and myth. Suspicions abound, for example, about the purpose of the weekly flights between Caracas and Tehran -- there is even some scuttlebutt circulating about training of Hezbollah in the state of Zulia – but such rumors are unsubstantiated and seem a bit far-fetched.

What is known – indeed, what both leaders proudly tout – is that Chavez and Ahmadinejad have frequently visited each other in recent years, and that the two governments have signed myriad cooperative agreements for future economic projects. Few doubt that Chavez is the principal point of entry to Latin America for the Ahmadinejad regime, as he has seemingly facilitated Iranian visits and incipient economic relationships with ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America) members such as Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

Iran is also seeking to extend its presence and influence throughout areas of the region that remain more removed from Chavez’s sphere of influence, like Brazil and even Colombia (hardly a Chavez ally these days). Ahmadinejad made a highly publicized and controversial visit to Brazil on November 23 (see side box), which served as Iran’s formal introduction to South America’s strongest power and as Lula’s clear message to Washington that when it comes to foreign policy, Brazil will meet with whomever it wishes. But Chavez, not Lula, is Ahmadinejad’s principal interlocutor in the hemisphere -- and their ideological affinity is the most pronounced.

Nuisance and Threat

The catch is that while Chavez is seen largely as a nuisance by the international community, Ahmadinejad is regarded as a threat because he is believed to be actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program and simultaneously obstructing U.N. demands for inspections of Iranian facilities. His repeated denial of the Holocaust, virulent remarks against Israel, support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and the systematic crackdown on the Iranian opposition after the contested outcome of the June elections testify to the nefarious character of the regime. In this sense, Chavez comes off as the moderate one in the relationship. While Venezuela’s own authoritarian tendencies are troubling, the political system can best be characterized as oppressive rather than outright repressive like Iran’s. Rhetorically, however, the similarities are striking, and the congruity in views was clear during Ahmadinejad’s latest visit to Caracas on November 27. With the Iranian president at his side, Chavez praised him as an “anti-imperialist gladiator” and denounced Israel as the “murderous arm of the Yankee empire.”

Ahmadinejad's Visit Heats Up Brazil

* The Iranian government captured its biggest prize yet in Latin America with the visit of President Ahmadinejad to Brazil in late November...

As a measure of the concern in Washington about risks associated in the relationship between Venezuela and Iran, the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere convened an unprecedented hearing precisely on this subject on October 27, 2009. As the committee’s chairman Eliot Engel (Democrat/New York) noted, “given the nature of the regime, it can be assumed it (Iran) is up to no good in the region.” While worried about Iran’s “record of deceit, especially on the nuclear program,” Engel conceded that much is unknown about the Venezuela-Iran relationship.

The hearing came six weeks after a special briefing at the Washington-based Brookings Institution by New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau entitled, “The Link Between Iran and Venezuela: A Crisis in the Making?” For most in the audience who were aware of the bilateral relationship, Morgenthau covered familiar ground, particularly highlighting questions about possible money laundering operations to support terrorist groups in the Middle East. Though the reports were not new, the fact that they were presented by someone of Morgenthau’s stature and reputation lent the issue greater seriousness. For many observers, possible money laundering by Iran within the Venezuelan banking system, though unsubstantiated, has a ring of plausibility, as the practice is an unfortunate but widespread problem throughout much of the Americas.

And at a State Department briefing on Latin America on December 11, 2009, Secretary of State Clinton issued the Obama administration’s toughest warning yet of Iran’s relationships in the region, especially with Venezuela and Bolivia. “And I think that if people want to flirt with Iran,” Clinton cautioned, “they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them.” Unsurprisingly, those stern words provoked a reaction from Chavez three days later at an ALBA meeting in Havana, in which he dismissed such “threats” as being part of an “imperial offensive.”

Aside from opportunities for grandstanding and symbolic gestures, what does Chavez get from the relationship? The short answer is, apparently, not too much. True, Chavez’s alliance with Ahmadinejad gives him yet another reason to thumb his nose at the US with great glee, but it is doubtful that he derives many other benefits from the partnership. Trade between the two countries is notably modest (at roughly $52 million in 2008) and the array of economic projects begun by the two presidents, ranging from dairy sales to automobile production, have reportedly turned out to be more of a liability than an asset. (The same can be said in Nicaragua, where promises made by the Iranian regime for enhanced investment have reportedly not been met.) Nor is the relationship with Iran likely to yield economic dividends for Chavez in other sectors, although it does enable him to keep oil prices high (which helps at least in the short term).

An alliance with Ahmadinejad also does not strengthen Chavez’s claim that his government is working on behalf of global peace. In actuality, it hurts Chavez’s relationships with potential allies in Europe and even in Latin America that are worried about Iran’s nuclear aims. And it is not even clear that the relationship helps Chavez politically at home. Venezuelan and Iranian cultures could not be further apart. The two governments do currently share an antipathy for the United States (though, curiously, rather warm feelings historically in their respective regions towards what Chavez calls the “empire”), but Ahmadinejad is like a fish out of water in Venezuela, where he does not seem to arouse a lot of excitement even among core Chavez supporters.

For Ahmadinejad, the benefits of the relationship seem a bit clearer. Befriending Chavez opens the way for Iran’s entry into the Western Hemisphere, thus irritating Washington and projecting a more global presence. It also helps Iran overcome its status as an international pariah and gain a measure of legitimacy in a region regarded as mostly democratic. Still, while Venezuela may offer Iran some hospitable terrain to pursue its strategic objectives, it is hard to argue that Venezuela is fundamental to Iran’s foreign policy agenda. Whatever geopolitical aims Iran may have are at best only marginally advanced by the alliance with Venezuela. The economic advantages of the relationship for Iran are even more elusive.

What Does Iran Want?

Much of the recent conjecture about the relationship centers on the possibility that Iran is searching for uranium deposits in Venezuela, and that there is some collaboration between the two governments on developing nuclear weapon capabilities. No convincing evidence about such work has been revealed, however, and in light of Venezuela’s mounting difficulties in carrying out elementary governmental functions, it is questionable whether the country has the technical capacity or wherewithal to pursue such a sophisticated undertaking. Still, given the sensitivity of the issue, strict vigilance by the US and others in the international community is called for, and is doubtless being practiced to the extent it is possible.

Also of considerable concern is whether Iran-supported terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are receiving any type of assistance, either financial or logistical, for possible operations in the Western Hemisphere. This possibility is presumably being closely followed, especially given the claims in some reports that these groups are building a presence in a number of Western Hemisphere countries. It is also the case, though, that these types of groups are part of global networks with extensive reach, so any Latin American links they may have are not necessarily limited to Venezuela.

Nevertheless, there are two factors to bear in mind when assessing possible terrorist involvement in the region. The first is the still-murky relationship that exists between Chavez’s government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a terrorist group that continues to wage a decades-long battle to topple the Colombian government. While the “smoking gun” linking Chavez to the FARC may not exist, there are many hints of collaboration between the two. Ample reporting has documented FARC use of Venezuelan territory for shelter from Colombian forces, and computer files belonging to former FARC leader Raul Reyes (authenticated by INTERPOL) uncovered after the Colombian military raid in Ecuadoran territory on March 1, 2008, suggested that Chavez provided financial support to the group. Chavez has not exactly hidden his sympathies, either; the monument in a Caracas barrio dedicated to FARC founder Manuel “Tirofijo” Marulanda would be hard to imagine without his blessing. Especially in view of the progressive deterioration in relations between Chavez and Colombian president Alvaro Uribe – with Chavez's increasingly bellicose declarations about “preparing for war” – it is unlikely that the Venezuelan president will distance himself from the most significant insurgency in the Western Hemisphere anytime soon.

The second important factor is Iran’s track record in the Americas, which is a cause for concern. Iran and Hezbollah are believed to be complicit in the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) in 1994, which resulted in 115 deaths and more than 500 injured. A report by Argentina’s justice ministry on the AMIA bombing identified several high-level Iranian officials and a Hezbollah operative as the attack’s material and operational authors.

These questions involving terrorism are one reason why any relationship between Venezuela and Iran is of concern to the US. Barack Obama famously said in his inaugural speech on January 20, 2009 that the United States “will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” but so far Venezuela’s relationship with Iran has changed little from the moments of enormous confrontation and heightened tension under the previous presidency of George W. Bush. The content and tone of the declarations made by Chavez and Ahmadinejad in Caracas in late November 2009 were strikingly similar to those made when the US was under an administration distinguished by its military unilateralism, disposition for regime change, and alarms about the “axis of evil” (which, of course, included Iran).

It is true that with Obama the tone of the discourse coming from Washington has markedly moderated, and the image of the United States is far more favorable than it had been. But though the ambassadors removed from Caracas and then Washington at the end of the Bush administration have now returned to their respective posts, there is scant cooperation, or even communication, between the two governments. Aside from the continuing irritation about Iran’s relationship with Venezuela, the policy differences between Washington and Caracas are tough to bridge, particularly on the Honduras crisis and the US-Colombia pact for access to military bases. Prospects for a rapprochement any time soon seem nil.

The Tension Continues

The degree to which the US-Iran relationship has once again become highly problematic and conflictive is also noteworthy. The Ahmadinejad government’s initial receptivity to the Obama administration’s suggestion to make its nuclear program open to international scrutiny appeared to augur a possible thaw, but that overture has sadly proved fruitless. Iran has in fact become more defiant than ever, determined to proceed vigorously with its nuclear program, no matter how much international opinion is aligned against it. In a vote by the United Nations nuclear watchdog IAEA on November 26, 2009, a statement sharply rebuking Iran was supported overwhelmingly, even by Russia and China, with only three governments backing Tehran – Malaysia, Cuba, and Venezuela. The varying levels of concern in Washington with the political alliance between Venezuela and Iran should be seen within the context of the overall deteriorating relationship between Washington and Tehran.

Of course, from all accounts, Iran and Venezuela currently have their hands full, not only in their wider regions of the Middle East and Latin America respectively, but, perhaps most crucially on the domestic fronts. Such circumstances make a robust relationship very difficult. Chavez and Ahmadinejad's chief priority is the perpetuation of power at home, without which it will be virtually impossible to deepen ties across the globe. The Ahmadinejad government has its share of economic problems and mounting dissent and opposition, as reflected in street protests following the election. Iranian experts note signs of fissures within the country’s governing structure.

In a similar way, Venezuela is facing growing problems and vulnerabilities that are likely to consume the attention of the Chavez government. These include uncontrolled criminality, high inflation, decaying infrastructure, water shortages and electricity rationing. Iran can offer little help in addressing such deterioration. The responses will have to come from within Chavez’s model of governance and the pillars that have supported him for more than a decade in pursuit of the Bolivarian Revolution.

But as the banking crisis in early December clearly showed, some of these pillars – the so-called “Bolibourgeoise”, for example – are displaying signs of discontent with the current regime that risk producing important cracks within Chavismo. When such "seeds of decay" acquire a dynamic of their own they become harder and harder to reverse, no matter how seductive the rhetoric or bold the provocations.

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