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Why Tehran is reestablishing close ties with Venezuela

Aside from avoiding U.S. sanctions, Iran’s new president needs to mollify hardliners and separate himself from his predecessor.

Iran’s foreign minister said recently that Tehran and Caracas have agreed to draw a 20-year roadmap for more future cooperation. Close ties between Iran and Venezuela are nothing new, dating back to time of the previous Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Ahmadinejad would argue that a revolution had taken place in the Latin American region with a united front comprising leftist and anti-American movements coming to power and that these countries could help him in the fight against the United States.

The regular meetings between Ahmadinejad and Chavez and the insistence of the two sides on the need to strengthen bilateral relations was one of the main features of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy. For an Iranian president who would stress the need to strengthen relations with Non-Aligned Movement countries, relations with Caracas had a special place in his foreign policy.

However, when Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013, he changed the course of Iran’s foreign policy and his moderate administration put the focus on easing tensions with the West. Rouhani preferred talks with the United States and cooperation with Europe to close relations with Latin America. Accordingly, the level of Tehran’s relations with Caracas and other Latin American countries that were still anti-American subsided relative to the Ahmadinejad era.

This led many anti-American Iranian politicians to criticize the Rouhani administration for not paying attention to the opportunity that closer relations with Latin American countries provide to Iran.

However, after Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the imposition of unprecedented sanctions against Iran, Tehran faced serious problems in exporting and selling its oil. Meanwhile, as the economic and fuel crises in Venezuela escalated, Iranian officials decided to send several tankers carrying gasoline and oil derivatives to the fuel-starved country.

Official statistics show that so far Iran has sent several tankers carrying more than 1.5 million barrels of gasoline and crude oil derivatives to Venezuela. In addition, amid food shortages in the sanctioned country, the Islamic Republic opened a supermarket in Venezuela a few years ago filled with Iranian-made products.

But because both Iran and Venezuela are operating under severe U.S. sanctions, Caracas reportedly has to pay the Iranians in gold.

Seyed Ahmad Sobhani, Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela from 2001 to 2006 said in an interview with local Iranian media on October 15, 2021 that “Iran is under sanctions and it may try to circumvent them in various ways and could take gold or something else in exchange for oil or something else that it has sold.”

Sobhani, a hardliner, added, “What is wrong with receiving money from Venezuela, whether it is in the form of gold, euros or any other currencies with which we can purchase other things or meet our needs?

Hardliner politicians in Tehran brag about trading with Venezuela as entering American backyard. On September 12, a report by Fars news agency run by the Revolutionary Guards Corps described the Iranian tankers en route to Venezuela as “Iran’s steps in the US backyard.”

The resurgence in Iran-Venezuela relations is taking place at a time when the new government in Tehran, unlike Rouhani’s moderate government, not only apparently does not welcome warmer relations with the West, but it also prioritizes “neutralizing the impact of sanctions” as it main strategy. On August 22, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian promised hardline lawmakers in the Iranian parliament that he would work toward diminishing the impact of U.S. sanctions. Whether that can happen in cooperation with Venezuela, however, remains to be seen.

So Tehran’s closer relations with Caracas fit within the broader framework of Iranian officials’ anti-American strategy.

President Raeisi also wants to establish an independent identity from Rouhani when it comes to foreign policy. He often distances himself from the JCPOA as well as Rouhani’s desire to for warmer ties with the West.

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