Friday, July 07, 2006

Reuters Downplays the Chavez Threat

With the increased focus on North Korea's missile program and the upcoming visit of Hugo Chavez to that country to (allegedly) discuss arms-for-oil, I thought I'd share a little more about Hugo Chavez. And you know what? Reuters doesn't want you to worry:

Iran and Venezuela team up as anti-U.S. "odd couple"
[That's right - like Felix and Oscar - Editor]
Fri Jul 7, 2006 11:03 AM ET
By Christian Oliver

TEHRAN (Reuters) - To deserve a statue in central Tehran, you normally need to be an 11th-century Persian poet. However, Venezuela's 19th-century independence leader Simon Bolivar surveys passers-by in Goftogou Park.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, wearing the chequered headscarf of the Basij volunteer Islamic militia, stressed the cordiality of Tehran-Caracas relations when he unveiled the statue of his hero on an icy November day in 2004.

Right-wing Venezuelan and U.S. media have attacked Chavez's growing ties with Tehran. In their most fanciful conspiracy theory, Iran is planning to ship nuclear warheads to Venezuela in a re-run of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

So don't worry, folks. Chavez and nuclear weapons is a fanciful conspiracy theory!

In 2003, U.S. concerns that Arab money-launderers on the Venezuelan island of Margarita could help terrorists mushroomed into unsubstantiated charges that Iranian-backed Hizbollah fighters had set up training camps there.

Venezuelan officials have robustly denied such sinister dimensions to the Tehran-Caracas axis. So how do these two anti-U.S. governments benefit from closer ties?

Chavez backing Iranian terrorists? Unsubstantiated!

At first glance, Chavez and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem to be like-minded partners: two ex-military OPEC price hawks who are lavishing their petrodollars on the poor majority long neglected by their countries' rich elites.

Iran is increasingly courting the 114-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) for leverage in a dispute over its atomic work, arguing that it is only the United States and Western European countries that reckon Tehran is seeking nuclear missiles.

"It would be terribly useful for Iran to get NAM on its side as that makes the Europeans very nervous," said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

NAM stalwart Venezuela was one of only three countries to vote against referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council at the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in February.

Officials and analysts say this was a symbolic act in a vote the United States and its allies were always going to win. Deep down, they argue, there are clear limits to how close Caracas and Tehran can afford to become.

"What is a vote in the agency? Nothing. The Venezuelans know the real red line with Iran is arms. They both say they will repel any U.S. attack but they cannot join up on weapons," said a Latin American ambassador in Tehran.

The envoy said Caracas knows not to push its chief oil customer, the United States, too far, mentioning how quickly Defence Minister Orlando Maniglia cooled speculation in May that Venezuela could sell its old F-16 jet-fighters to Iran.

The United States slapped arms sanctions on Venezuela in May, partly because of Chavez's relations with Iran which Washington accuses of bankrolling terrorism. Venezuela is looking primarily to Russia for its weapons.

'Officials and analysts' say Iran and Venezuela know they can't cooperate that closely. So once again, don't worry!


Iran and Venezuela, the world's nos. 4 and 5 oil exporters, forged their friendship in the 1960s as founder members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"I would say OPEC is at the heart of the relationship. There is a downward pressure on prices and the Iranians and Venezuelans are nervous," Clawson said.

Venezuela and Iran, which both have big reserves but have experienced difficulties exploiting them, view world oil markets as oversupplied by about one million barrels per day.

Iran is also investing in Venezuela. Iran Khodro, the Middle East's biggest car manufacturer, is planning to build its Samand model there and oil firm Petropars has signed a deal to measure and certify oil reserves in the Orinoco Belt.

Iranian firms are producing tractors and cement in the Caribbean state. Iran's Industry Ministry says $1 billion (540 million pounds) has been invested so far in Venezuelan projects.

Beyond the economics, Chavez and Ahmadinejad look like strange bedfellows.

"All they seem to have in common is a visceral hatred of the United States," said Ali Ansari, Iran expert at Scotland's St Andrews University. "There is no real emotional tie, if Chavez were a Muslim that would make life a lot easier.

"Ahmadinejad's sphere is the Muslim world."

Not accepting Israel's right to exist is an ideological crux of Iranian foreign policy. Venezuela has diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

Iran's foreign policy priorities are traditionally Islamic and Ahmadinejad's populism is ideologically a world apart from Chavez's.

Chavez has focused spending on his support base in the shanty towns. In Iran, budget increases have often gone to shadowy religious foundations.

"Ahmadinejad has the populist rhetoric, but there is no plan. Where are the new irrigation systems, roads and railways? The oil money is a sort of patronage," Ansari said.

When asked how Chavistas, with their sense of being elected by the people, can ally themselves closely with a country where candidates are selected by the clerical high guard, a senior Venezuelan official said: "Relations are not spotless".

"We believe the relationship is important because of the need for a counter-weight to North American imperialism. But we also sincerely believe in a strong European Union, a strong Russia and a strong China," he added.

Do you feel all reassured? No? Well, what if you knew that Chavez was just a peripatetic man of the people:

WITNESS - Reporting on Hugo Chavez? Pack batteries

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - It was 1 a.m. and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was close to the three-hour mark in a speech to university students in Panama.
Government officials were flagging and so was I after Latin America's most vocal left-wing leader had squeezed a public ceremony, a congressional address, a Panama Canal trip and nearly seven hours of speeches into a one-day visit.

As for the pugnacious former soldier himself, he seemed like his batteries were still fully charged as he charmed the crowd with a mix of jokes, socialist theory and proposals for Latin American integration to counter U.S. influence.

...Always colorful, often surprising and sometimes grueling, reporters ignore Chavez at their peril whatever the hour. He has dismissed ministers, spiked oil prices and caused diplomatic turmoil with a few choice, late-night words.

Critics dismiss him is a authoritarian blowhard but his international status has grown apace with the screeching ascent of oil prices. Venezuela often ranks with Iraq, Nigeria and Iran as an influence on world crude.

I find myself finishing his jokes and his tales about Simon Bolivar, the 19th century South American liberation hero he says inspires his revolution for the poor, but he can still catch you off guard.


...That exposure is part of what makes him popular. Grateful for his heavy spending on social programs, many poor Venezuelans see Chavez as their champion. Ask what he has done for them and invariably they answer: "He speaks for us."

He is a master political showman. Recently he donned the uniform and red beret of his former paratroop regiment to hand troops a batch of new Kalashnikov rifles to defend Venezuela from a U.S. invasion he says he sees coming.

So you see, you don't have to fear Chavez. I mean, just because he's making such an effort to build close ties with Iran and North Korea, you go and assume he's dangerous? Nonsense! Why, he's a sweetheart like Castro and Ahmadinejad.

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