A nuclear “Rogue Axis”?

Posted in Asia | 17-Dec-07 | Author: Christian Rieck

The revolution needs independence. Thus, the hard core of Venezuela’s diplomacy is the acquisition of strategic technologies that lessen her economy’s dependence on oil. That is why the most ambitious field of common interests between Iran and Venezuela could be a cooperation in the area of nuclear technology. Chávez has shown an interest in a nuclear reactor of his own, but has not been able to buy one from neither Argentina nor Brazil.

Between Iran and Venezuela mostly economic complementarities exist. Venezuela has technical know-how in the gas and oil sectors, while Iran has industrial knowledge, for example in the automobile manufacturing, in the production of tractors and plastics. In these areas cooperation between those two countries already exists. Venezuela has laid ground for a gasoline refinery in Iran, undermining the most effective sanctions the West could have implemented in the struggle for Iran’s nuclear program: a gasoline embargo of Iran. Even though that country is rich in oil and gas it lacks in refineries. Through this cooperation, Iran buys time for further negotiations until it finishes its nuclear program, Venezuela buys sensitive technology that leads to stronger diversification and development as well as greater autonomy from the United States.

Since the West and Venezuela’s neighbors do not trust the Chávez Administration with this sensitive technology, his quest for an alternative technology source is rational. The farther the revolution progresses the more important the nuclear option becomes. It frees up oil for the lucrative export business and guarantees energy autarky at home. Venezuela has explicitly not discarded this nuclear option, has campaigned for peaceful reactor technology during Chávez’ state visit in Russia and also very publicly held up every country’s “right of nuclear self-determination” in the discussions on the nuclear fuel cycles of Brazil and Iran. The Chávez Administration was the only member country in the IAEA to have voted against the sanctions against Iran. Therefore, official rhetoric and diplomacy has already prepared the ground for Venezuela’s nuclear option.

Venezuela has been trying to buy a reactor for some time now, but a nuclear program of her own would be much more valuable for the country. Even if this option (still) seems to lie in the distant future, it nevertheless becomes more probable with every year the “revolution” rages on in those two countries. It is not unlikely that a perpetuated “Bolivarian Revolution“ – modelled after the Cuban system under the lifelong presidency of Hugo Chávez – would raise its self-esteem to a level where it would no longer accept the nuclear gap to the big neighbour and rival Brazil in the struggle for regional leadership. Brazil is today the only Latin American country with a fuel cycle of its own.

Venezuela is not pursuing military interests with the atom. Against the official rhetoric and the powerful modernization of her armed forces (with Russia’s help), the country does not really feel threatened by some possible military intervention from the United States. However, she does not want to stay dependent on overseas reactor technology that makes the revolution prone to potential blackmail. For Russia and Iran Venezuela could therefore be a lucrative export market – and an opportunity to break the West’s (restrictive) technology monopoly in the region.

The decisive question will be whether the “nuclear brother” Iran will really share its hard-won technology with Venezuela. This is indeed unlikely since a true ideological bond does not exist in this “Axis of Good”. But even for pragmatic economic reasons will Iran be able to provide active assistance for building nuclear reactors and maybe even for enriching (small amounts of) uranium. Iran and Venezuela depend on mutual loyalty – on loyalty that can be counted upon even in adverse times. So, the more Iran is isolated internationally, the more probable is a nuclear technology transfer.