Iran is striving to expand its influence in fellow U.S. adversary Venezuela, which is hosting an Iranian cultural fair this week and seeking Iranian assistance to revive the ailing Venezuelan energy industry.
The International Fair of Venezuelan-Iranian Culture and Friendship opened March 4 in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, and runs through Sunday. It is organized by a Caracas-based group called the Center for Intercultural Exchange in Latin America, or CICL.
The U.S. research group Foundation for Defense of Democracies said in a report last December that CICL is a Latin American branch of Iran’s al-Mustafa International University, which the report describes as Tehran’s principal institution for recruiting, indoctrinating and training foreign converts to Shi’ite Islam.
Videos posted Friday on CICL’s Instagram page showed Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Mahdi Esmaili visiting the fair.
Venezuela hosted another senior Iranian official on February 3, when Oil Minister Tareck el-Aissami met with Iran’s top diplomat, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in Caracas. Iranian state media said el-Aissami urged the Iranian government to share its expertise on energy and related technologies with his nation, which sits on the world’s biggest crude oil reserves but has a decaying infrastructure beset by domestic fuel shortages in recent years.
Three days later, Reuters reported that state oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela planned to award a $490 million contract to the state-owned National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company in coming weeks to revamp the Paraguana Refining Center, Venezuela’s largest refining complex. The Reuters report cited “four sources close to the plan.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yvan Gil Pinto described Iran as a very close friend at a more recent meeting with Amir-Abdollahian in Geneva on February 28, according to the Iranian foreign ministry. It cited Pinto as saying Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government is “determined to strengthen relations with Iran in all fields, including oil, energy, economy and trade.”
Both nations are heavily sanctioned by the U.S. which sees them as human rights violators and sponsors of terrorism and accuses them of other malign behaviors.
The growing Iranian-Venezuelan alliance was the focus of a VOA interview with exiled Venezuelan opposition politician Julio Borges in this week’s edition of the Flashpoint Iran podcast. Borges is a senior member of the Justice First party and a one-time foreign minister of the former U.S.-backed interim Venezuelan government that comprised several opposition parties and dissolved itself in January after four years.
The following transcript of Borges’ interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: What kind of research have you conducted on Iran's relations with Venezuela?
Julio Borges, Member of Venezuela’s Opposition Justice First Party: We have been very concerned about the relationship between Iran and Maduro. It's a relationship that started during the rule of President Hugo Chavez [who led Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013]. And it started as something that people made jokes about, because Iran established a plant to produce Iranian bicycles in Venezuela. But this little joke has been growing and growing. According to our research, Iran and Venezuela have developed a very solid relationship that in my view is very negative for democracy, human rights and Western values.
VOA: Reuters reported that Iran will agree to help Venezuela repair its largest refining complex at Paraguana. Can you confirm this?
Borges: Yes, we are aware that the visit of the Iranian foreign minister to Venezuela had to do with this project to repair the Paraguana Refining Center (CRP). This will be done through NIORDC, which is sanctioned by the U.S. because it has used oil to support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [Iran’s top military force, itself designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization]. It's a project that has been handled in a very dark and closed relationship between Maduro and Iran.
At this time, we know through leaks that there is agreement for a more than $100 million contract to repair CRP, which by the way, was destroyed by Maduro himself because of many, many accidents and mishandling of this refinery.
VOA: This deepening cooperation between Iran and Venezuela has spread to many sectors of the Venezuelan government and economy. What do the people of Venezuela think about Iran's growing involvement in their daily life?
Borges: That's a very important question. People feel that Venezuela right now is like a country under different occupations. Maduro has opened the door of Venezuela to the Russians, for example, and they go freely to different places for recreation. Maduro has opened the doors for the Cubans, and they have been handling many things in Venezuela since many years ago: education, health care and even the armed forces.
The presence of Iranians and people from other countries that are different from our culture — for regular Venezuelan people, it is something strange that has nothing to do with our tradition. It’s like a political occupation of our country and it’s trying to change our democratic values. At the end of the day, what those [political occupiers] are doing is simply using our country as a base in order to develop operations in Latin America. This is something that has to be taken seriously by Western countries.
VOA: President Maduro said recently he would like a normalization of relations with the United States. After he said that, Iran expressed some public concern saying, so to speak, ‘no, we don't want you, Venezuela, to go down that route.’ Obviously, Iran and the U.S. have a very tense relationship. So, how much of an impact do you think Maduro's signals about normalization with the U.S. could affect his relationship with Iran?
Borges: I think Maduro wants to be in the best of all worlds. He wants to have a relationship with the U.S. He wants to keep this subordination to the Cubans. He wants to be a partner of the Russians and Iranians to [learn from them how to] avoid U.S. sanctions. He wants to be protected by China.
So, in my view, we have to build more pressure on Maduro for him to choose if he wants to be on the side of the democratic world, the free world, the human rights world; or if he wants to be part of autocracies and anti-democratic and anti-Western values. This [kind of choice] has to be black and white for Maduro. But he wants to be in a gray zone, which is very dangerous for democracy and human rights all over Latin America.