The Raisi Administration and Maduro

In June 2022, President Maduro traveled to Tehran, where he and Raisi signed a 20-year cooperation agreement. This seeks to boost trade and improve ties in the energy, science, technology, and tourism sectors, though more detailed information has not been made available. While hailed as a dramatic geopolitical move by both countries, the agreement belies tensions in the relationship.

Since Russia’s ground invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, reduction in Russian oil on global markets due to Western sanctions has led to an increase in the price of oil, which the Biden Administration has sought to alleviate by easing sanctions against Venezuelan oil exports. In March 2022, the Biden Administration reportedly mulled allowing Venezuela to resume some oil exports. In October 2022, Maduro released seven U.S. prisoners and resumed talks with the opposition to placate the U.S. The U.S., in turn, eased some sanctions against Venezuela, allowing Chevron to export Venezuelan oil. The U.S. also withdrew recognition of Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela after the opposition-controlled legislature voted to dissolve the interim government, and the U.S. released two Venezuelan prisoners who were being held in the U.S.

In February 2023, Iran’s international isolation grew due to its acceleration of uranium enrichment to near weapons-grade, its provision of one-way attack drones to Russia for use on the battlefield in European Union (EU)-candidate country Ukraine, and its brutal crackdown against peaceful Woman, Life, Freedom protesters. Because of this isolation, Iran’s partnerships with authoritarian regimes like Venezuela appear increasingly important. In January 2023, President Raisi warned Maduro against normalizing relations with the U.S., a step Maduro said his country was “ready” to take. The following month, Raisi sent Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Venezuela to shore up ties. Amir-Abdollahian issued statements about “defending their national interests against external pressures,” but no significant agreements were reached.

In June 2023, Raisi made his first trip to Venezuela, which was also his first trip to Latin America since assuming the presidency. In Venezuela, President Maduro awarded him the “National Medal of Honor.” After meeting and calling the U.S. their “common enemy,” the two leaders signed cooperation agreements. Reports indicated that the deals would provide scholarships for educational exchanges and Iran’s importation of Venezuelan cattle. The two leaders also expressed optimism about increasing annual bilateral trade volumes to $20 billion despite international sanctions against their countries. As part of the effort to expand trade, Raisi called for activating new shipping lines between the two countries. The two leaders also agreed to initiate joint projects in the oil and petrochemical industries, aiming to build on the projects announced after their June 2022 meeting.

Despite this developing economic cooperation, the U.S. continued to smooth relations with Maduro, looking to boost global oil supplies to keep prices low. In mid-October 2023, the Biden Administration reached a deal with Maduro to lift additional sanctions on companies working in Venezuela’s energy sector in exchange for his guarantee to hold free and fair elections.