September 30, 2020

Iran-Venezuela cooperation expands to security realm

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

Iran offered to help Venezuela expand its military and internal security capabilities. The Islamic Republic and Nicolás Maduro’s regime have cooperated in 2020 to mitigate their economic crises and undermine US sanctions. Tehran recently began discussing security cooperation with Caracas after Iran previously provided Venezuela energy assistance for $500 million of gold. Iranian officials want greater trade with Venezuela to mitigate Iran’s currency collapse. The Islamic Republic could offer Maduro conventional military and domestic surveillance capabilities—particularly after the UN arms embargo on Iran expires in October[1]—for more financial assistance offsetting Iran’s economic decline.

Iranian leaders have likely offered Maduro help mobilizing paramilitary supporters and increasing control over Venezuela’s information space. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s military adviser and former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander, Yahya Rahim Safavi, *stated on September 27 that Iran is “helping with software and giving [Venezuela] ideas, [including,] for example, discussing how to form popular mobilization.” The Islamic Republic uses its own “popular mobilization” force, the Basij Organization, for social control. The Basij is a paramilitary body under the IRGC that recruits regime supporters, indoctrinates members, produces state propaganda, suppresses political dissent, and cracks down on protests. The Basij commander *stated on September 16 that Venezuela could model the Basij.

Safavi also stated that Iran offered help “repelling cyberattacks,” possibly referring to assistance imposing state censorship in Venezuela. Iranian leaders accuse the West of stoking anti-government sentiment in Iran via cyberspace. Regime officials thus want greater control over Iran’s information environment and to reduce public reliance on foreign internet and social media services. Iran may help Maduro develop his own domestic censorship and monitoring. This technical assistance is harder for the US to interdict than Iran’s fuel shipments that the Donald Trump administration seized in August.

Iranian-Venezuelan trade could expand to military hardware, particularly after the UN arms embargo expires in October. Iran needs hard currencies and is eager to export defense technologies. Tehran could offer domestic surveillance hardware including cameras, drones, and facial recognition technologies, some of which Iran likely acquired from China. Maduro has also suggested purchasing Iranian missiles, but it is unclear whether he would seriously pursue such an acquisition. The regimes’ growing cooperation will consolidate Iran’s already rising influence and interests in Venezuela.

[1] The US announced that it has “snapped back” the UN sanctions lifted by the Iran nuclear deal, but the UN and other parties to the nuclear deal have not recognized that “snap back.”

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