Ideological Affinity

The ideologies in Venezuela and Iran since the Bolivarian and Islamic Revolutions, respectively, aspire to build consensus in their regions against the U.S. Both states have at times shunned nationalism, appealing instead to a broader coalition of states in their regions. Venezuela’s brand of pan-Latin anti-Americanism resembles Iran’s appeal to pan-Islamism, a call for unity among all Islamic nations. While Venezuela has cynically claimed the mantle of South American leadership against U.S. capitalism, Iranian clerics frame their struggle in terms of Muslim oppression. They both demonize Western influences, including secular democracy and capitalism, as a threat to their faith, and have weaponized the Palestinian nationalist movement to exact costs on Israel and stoke violence in an effort to convince the world that the Israeli state is illegitimate.

The rhetoric of external threats, victimization, and oppression at the hands of the West bolsters both revolutionary states’ legitimacy in the view of some audiences and helps distract from domestic challenges. Accordingly, U.S. policies like economic sanctions, rather than the regimes’ endemic corruption and mismanagement, are said to be blamed for their citizens’ poverty and resource shortages. This narrative appeals to regime insiders and sections of the populaces alike, even though the latter bear the brunt of their government’s destructive policies.

Alex Saab is a notable example of a Venezuelan regime official that uses anti-Americanism to distract from his involvement in crime and corruption. Saab is a Colombian businessman-turned-Venezuelan diplomat and in June 2020 was detained in Cape Verde on a U.S. arrest warrant for money laundering. In October 2021, the U.S. charged him with siphoning millions of dollars from aid programs intended to help people in Venezuela. As he was at the time of his arrest Maduro’s Special Envoy to Iran, and had in that capacity secured Iran’s promise to provide medical supplies, fuel, and technical expertise to help repair Venezuela’s oil facilities, he claims that the U.S. targeted him as a means of depriving the Venezuelan people of basic necessities. Saab’s lawyers have framed the indictment as a politically-motivated attack on humanitarianism.

The ideological anti-Americanism behind Saab’s diversion tactics is buttressed by Iran’s humanitarian activities in Venezuela. In 2020, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Iran shipped testing kits and other supplies to Venezuela, and it sent tankers to supply much-needed fuel. Iran’s gas provisions led Venezuelan youth to raise the Islamic Republic of Iran flag as a gesture of gratitude to their benefactor, underscoring the shipment’s propaganda value.

However, Saab’s potential involvement in these humanitarian activities did not deter the U.S. from indicting him. Because aid programs and religious and educational institutions are difficult to sanction given their perceived humanitarian value, policymakers must keep a close eye on them, as they can be used for money laundering, illicit financing, propaganda, and operational cover.