Maduro’s Visit to Iran and Turkey: Economic Interests and Ideological Collusion

ByClément Therme

In June 2022, the Eurasian tour of the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was first and foremost a response to the exclusion by the Biden administration of Venezuela from the Ninth Summit of the Americas held in Los Angeles in the same month. Maduro visited Algeria, Turkey, Iran, and Kuwait. The objectives were twofold: firstly, the Venezuelan president has been engaged in economic diplomacy to contain the damaging impact of US economic sanctions on his country. Secondly, President Maduro aimed to build an anti-US coalition to prepare the ground for the emergence of a post-Western dominated international order. This ideological objective remains largely fictitious in the absence of support from Russia and China, the two main non-Western international powers.

Despite the official discourse, the economic dimension was always a secondary priority in the relationship between Venezuela and the Eurasian countries behind the ideological dimension. This is especially true for the alliance with Iran. The geographical distance was another difficulty for President Maduro in strengthening Venezuela’s economic cooperation with the Eurasian countries.

 The topics discussed by President Maduro in Turkey and Iran were of a similar nature: energy, tourism, agriculture and technology transfer. There was also the shared goal of organizing the resistance against US imperialism. In other words, Turkish and Iranian leaders are showing their solidary with Venezuela against US sanctions. They present themselves as victims of the “US economic war” or even “US economic terrorism,” especially according to Iran’s narrative. One other common feature between Iranian-Venezuelan and Turkish-Venezuelan partnerships is that the level of their respective bilateral cooperation depends on the state of their relations with Washington. When bilateral relations with the US deteriorate, since 2016 for Turkey and since the presidency of Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) for Iran, their ties with Venezuela improve. Both the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Tayyip Erdogan present their relationship with Caracas as proof of Iranian and Turkish foreign policy independence from the United States. The idea of Iran, Turkey and Venezuela being at the avant-garde of a new post-Western dominated world order is also a key element of Maduro’s Eurasian tour. The only note of concern is that Turkey is a member of NATO. This means that the Turkish-Venezuelan encounter is more of a temporary entente whereas the Iranian-Venezuelan partnership is a long-term alliance as long as their respective governments are able to resist Washington’s objective to change the political setup in Caracas and Tehran.

 Maduro’s Visit to Turkey

The 2016 coup attempt in Turkey was the defining moment in Turkish-Venezuelan rapprochement, especially as it gave rise to the birth of a new personal relationship between Erdogan and Maduro. The new personal connection between the two leaders can be best explained by their mutual distrust of the West and their common rejection of US unilateral economic sanctions. Therefore, one has to consider that their relationship is the result of a reactive foreign policy against the West rather than a proactive choice by the two leaders. Indeed, the Maduro administration has been under US sanctions since 2015, and the Trump administration-imposed sanctions on Turkey in 2018. Since 2016, President Maduro has visited Turkey five times. In 2019, trade between Venezuela and Turkey was $150 million, reached $300 million in 2020, and $858 million in 2021. The two leaders are aiming to increase bilateral trade to $1 billion in 2022, $1.5 billion in 2023 and $3 billion in the near future.

Turkey and Venezuela signed three further agreements on banking, agriculture and tourism during Maduro’s visit. Despite these economic achievements, bilateral ties between Ankara and Caracas will remain highly dependent on the state of US-Turkish relations and on the evolution of Russian-Turkish ties. In the case of Venezuelan relations with Iran, ties are more political than economic but the idea of the Russian-Ukrainian war leading to a new positive moment for Caracas and Tehran is also part of the ideological narratives of the two countries. These narratives are not based on a real assessment of the economic consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian war for the oil-sanctioned economies of Iran and Venezuela.

 Maduro’s Visit to Iran

A lot has been said about the need for the Biden administration to find new sources of oil in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Nevertheless, even if Iranian and Venezuelan oil industries benefit in the short term from rising oil prices, it remains to be seen if they can contribute to global oil output given the lack of investments and US sanctions that target both industries. There is also now the added competition of Russian oil which is also under sanctions and will squeeze Iranian exports to China.

In this international context, the visit of President Maduro to Tehran aimed to improve the level of strategic cooperation started by Hugo Chavez in 2001, even though diplomatic relations were established way back in 1950. Tehran and Caracas are trying to build a strategic alliance. This explains why they have signed a 20-year cooperation plan. The priority given by the Raisi administration to the partnership with Venezuela is part of a broader Iranian objective to insulate the Iranian economy from US sanctions. President Raisi explained in October 2021 that Venezuela “is one of the main priorities of Iranian economic diplomacy.” This represents a key difference from the previous Rouhani administration (2013-2021) which prioritized economic diplomacy with European countries such as Germany, France, Italy, or Austria. During their joint press conference, Maduro and Raisi referred to “the resistance of Iran and Venezuela against the domineering powers.” According to their view, this policy “showed that resistance forces the enemy to retreat.” While answering the critics who mentioned the geographical distance between the two countries, President Maduro insisted on the power of love between the two revolutionary governments. Despite this revolutionary romanticism, low-level economic cooperation has characterized relations between the two countries.

The content of the 20-year “cooperation road map” has not been made public. The main announcement was the opening of a new direct flight between Caracas and Tehran which will be established on July 18, 2022 with one flight per week. This flight aims to develop tourism between the two countries.

The Iranian and Venezuelan presidents also announced the delivery of a second Iranian-made oil tanker to Venezuela. The delivery ceremony of the second Aframax tanker manufactured by the Iranian Marine Industrial Company (Sadra) was held in the presence of the two leaders. Presidents Maduro and Raisi also visited Iranian companies that operate in the fields of health, food safety, oil, and gas. The two presidents also monitored the activities and achievements of Iranian oil companies in the fields of exploration, extraction, petrochemicals, and artificial intelligence. The two leaders expressed their defiance against the former Trump administration’s policy and the failure of Washington’s policy of regime change as well as its oil embargo imposed on Venezuela in 2020. Since 2020, Iran has helped repair and overhaul a number of Venezuelan oil refineries that have suffered from decades of mismanagement, low levels of investment and sanctions.

An Ideological Challenge to Perceived US Hegemony in Its Backyard

The idea of working for the establishment of a post-US dominated international system was also at the center of the discourse during Maduro’s visit to Iran. Raisi explained that “it is very important for Iran to develop relations with Latin America, especially independent countries and countries like Cuba, who stand against the arrogance of the global arrogant regime.” Beyond this ideological discourse, one has to consider Iran’s help provided to Venezuela to bypass US economic sanctions. For instance, Iran has delivered 6.8 million barrels of oil to beleaguered Venezuela this year, a 48 percent increase over the full-year 2021 figure. Eventually, the goal of the Iranian government is to strengthen its global network of influence in the US backyard through the presence of Hezbollah but also via using its soft power tools such as the new Iranian-Spanish language channel HispanTV operated by IRIB.

On the whole, it remains to be seen if the majority of the peoples of Venezuela, Iran and Turkey are going to support the rapprochement between their countries based on their respective governments’ rejection of the so-called Western hegemonic international order. It is far from certain whether or not the remarks of President Maduro explaining that Venezuela, Iran and Turkey are at the forefront of a new international order will convince the majority of their respective peoples. Indeed, these three countries are under US sanctions mainly because of the geopolitical preferences of their leaders. This is certainly true for Iran and Venezuela and to a lesser extent for Turkey since 2016. The deteriorating state of their respective economies is for sure a daily reminder that grandiloquent ideological statements are not a remedy to solve their economic problems. If internal economic conditions do not improve rapidly, the peoples of the three countries will begin to doubt the intentions of the strengthening of bilateral relations, with many likely to believe this rapprochement is merely to ensure government survival rather than to improve domestic economic realities.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Clément Therme
Clément Therme
a non-resident fellow at Rasanah-IIIS and a Research Associate at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris.