When Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, call each other brothers, they are bound to be “up to no good,” according to Mary Anastasia O’Grady, in her January 2006 Wall Street Journal column titled “The Tehran-Caracas Axis.” U.S. intelligence, O’Grady concludes, ought to do more to uncover what that “no good” is.
Titillating as it may be in the West to conjure images of the dastardly Ahmadjinejad-Chávez double act — the second coming of Hitler meets the banana republic dictator — for many ordinary Iranians, Chávez, whatever his accomplishments in Venezuela, is another in a series of foreign leaders whom the Iranian government has hosted since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, including Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
Perhaps this is why Iran’s diplomatic ties with Venezuela have garnered little attention in Iranian political discourse, much of which occurs online. A Google search of Chávez’s name in Persian yields about 100,000 hits, most of them skeletal reports by official Persian news agencies. Of the nearly 700,000 Iranian blogs busily pondering everything and anything Iran, few have taken much interest in Chávez, since his closeness to Tehran is nothing new—back in 2001, he was also a “brother” to Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad’s reformist predecessor, who was as politically disparate from Ahmadinejad as Cain from Abel. Chávez signed his first Iranian agreements with Khatami, boosting bilateral cooperation after meeting the powerful chairman of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani, a well-known heavyweight opponent of Ahmadinejad.
Nevertheless, the Iran-Venezuela relationship is demonstrably stronger today than it was six years ago, with a flurry of trade and investment agreements, diplomatic visits, mutual honors, and no end of photo ops. At least at first, Chávez seemed to have more in common with Ahmadinejad than any of his turbaned predecessors, since they both enjoyed support among the poor and advocated using oil wealth for economic development. Elected mayor of Tehran in 2003, Ahmadinejad famously donned a street sweeper’s uniform and publicly backed many labor unions. Later, as a presidential candidate, he used a close rendition of Chávez’s “oil belongs to the people” slogan during his 2005 campaign. He said he would bring “oil money to people’s tables” and “cut off the hands of the mafias” that controlled the industry. With promises of food and housing subsidies, he tapped into Iran’s vein of popular anger against corruption and cronyism, appealing to thousands of jobless youth and underpaid workers.
But all Ahmadinejad may share with Chávez is a talent for political theater and fiery rhetoric. Since his election, labor disputes and protests have been on the rise, with both unemployment and inflation surging. Iran has seen massive protests by teachers’ unions outside the Iranian parliament. As recently as March, security forces arrested at least 1,000 striking teachers after demonstrations in favor of raising their wages drew up to 10,000 protesters, many of whom waved banners denouncing Ahmadinejad. Many prominent union leaders, whom the president championed not so long ago, were among the detained.
Anger at the government exploded in June, when it introduced fuel rationing, after all its promises of bringing oil income to the country’s households. Riots erupted, and at least 19 gas stations in the capital and other cities were attacked. A week later, Venezuela came to the rescue, agreeing to sell Iran gasoline at an undisclosed price.
Given the perception of Chávez as an uncritical supporter of the Islamic Republic, what material does exist on him in the Iranian blogosphere is largely disapproving. This contrasts with perceptions of Chávez elsewhere in the Middle East. As Al Jazeera reported, after Chávez denounced Israel’s July 2006 bombing of Lebanon and recalled his charge d’affairs from Tel Aviv, many Arab Internet sites exploded with praise for him, with comments like “I am Palestinian but my president is Chavez, not Abu Mazen” and “I don’t want to be an Arab. From now on I shall be Venezuelan.”
After Ahmadinejad’s visit to Venezuela the following September—in which Chávez awarded him the Collar of the Order of the Liberator, Venezuela’s highest medal of honor bestowed on visiting dignitaries—the Iranian Revolutionary Socialists League (IRSL) posted a response on its Web site, Pishtaaz.com, lamenting that these closer ties would only “boost the regime and weaken the mass movements in Iran.”
Meanwhile, the right has made political mileage out of the contradictions. In a July New York Post column titled “Chavez vs. Iran’s Working Man,” Amir Taheri describes Chávez’s 2006 visit, in which he says he traveled to Asaluyeh, “one of the most deprived areas of Iran’s poverty-stricken Deep South.”
“Chavez spoke of ‘the toiling masses’ right to a better life,’ ” Taheri writes, while Iranian officials shielded him from seeing construction workers on strike. Taheri then details the deplorable conditions in the area, concluding, “Chavez, a Bolivarian? The workers in Asuleyeh know better.”
(Taheri, a member of the neoconservative public relations firm Benador Associates, wrote a discredited report in Canada’s National Post claiming the Iranian parliament had passed a law requiring Jews and other non-Muslims to wear identifying badges, as under the Nazis. The newspaper retracted the story and apologized.)
Two months before the Chávez visit in question, the IRSL had posted an open letter to him, praising the Bolivarian revolution and denouncing the Islamic Republic. “To us,” the letter reads, “it is possible for the Venezuelan government to have close diplomatic and trade relations with the Iranian government without giving it political support—particularly where domestic policy is concerned. Above all, endorsing its labour policy is in complete contradiction with your own domestic policy.” The letter went on to mention big differences between both countries, most importantly the Iranian government’s plans to privatize many state-owned enterprises (including banks, utilities, mines, transport, telecommunications, and oil) in an effort to attract U.S. and European direct investment.
Least forgiving of all was Ebrahim Nabavi, a satirist and one of Iran’s most prominent political writers in exile. “When someone like Chavez or Castro befriend this government so they can solve their own economic problems, and they sell their vote in the UN in return for 420 tractors,” he wrote, “such Machiavellian conduct is a betrayal against the egalitarian currents in Iran. I give them every right to ignore the human rights violations in Iran in favor of their national interests. But this is a relationship between a charlatan and an idiot.”
The Chávez-Ahmadinejad issue also provoked a nasty online debate in the United States on ZNet, Z Magazine’s online forum. Jennifer Fasulo, a feminist activist and radio producer, denounced Chávez for aligning with Ahmadinejad along similar lines as the IRSL. “There is no excuse for declaring solidarity with a theocratic regime that treats women like subhumans,” she wrote. “In this equation, the only thing that matters is opposition to U.S. military power. Women’s rights, worker’s rights, student’s rights—the things that are supposed to matter to socialists, progressives, and people of conscience—be damned.”
Eleanor Ommani, an Iranian American activist, rebutted Fasulo, arguing that “the solidarity expressed by the governments of Cuba and Venezuela towards Iran is based on the broad and dominant issue of the defense of sovereignty.” According to Ommani, the issue goes “far beyond the question of women; it falls within the category of revolution and counter-revolution.”
The sense of being stuck between a rock and a hard place is a feeling much echoed in Iranian circles these days. This was expressed eloquently in December by a student leader, whose name I withhold for safety reasons. Speaking at a rally at Tehran University, he declared, “Our struggle if twofold: fighting against internal oppression and external foreign threats.”
It’s a sentiment that sounds downright chavista, yet the student activists writing for Advar News on the Web site of Tahkim Vahdat, Iran’s largest student union, seem almost prejudiced against Chávez, viewing him as nothing more than a populist demagogue. They may not actually know a lot about him, but they do know his new best friend Ahmadinejad painfully well.
Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran (Soft Skull Press, 2007).