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January 24, 2019 3:27 pm

After US Recognizes Venezuelan Opposition Chief as President, Iranian Leaders Rally Behind Maduro Regime

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Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro (r) embraces Iranian foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting in Caracas. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins.

Hours after the US announced on Wednesday that it would no longer recognize the regime of President Nicolas Maduro as the legitimate government of Venezuela, Iran’s leaders rushed to the defense of their key Latin American ally.

Speaking as mass street protests against Maduro continued on Thursday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi condemned what he called “overt and unlawful interventions” by the US in Venezuela’s domestic affairs.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran supports the government and the nation of Venezuela in the face of any foreign intervention in the country’s internal affairs or any illegal or anti-popular actions, such as attempts to stage coups,” Ghasemi said, in remarks carried by official Iranian news outlets.

Iran’s declaration of solidarity with Maduro came soon after the Venezuelan leader broke off diplomatic relations with the US, following the Trump administration’s decision to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido — who serves as president of the democratically-elected National Assembly — as the country’s interim head of state. Guaido declared himself acting president earlier this week, as opposition parties seek new elections to replace Maduro, whose re-election in 2017 for an eight-year term was marred by political corruption and violent intimidation of voters.

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Under Maduro’s late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, relations with Iran’s regime flourished, as Venezuela cashed in on high oil prices during the mid-2000s to bolster its policy of confrontation with the US and its allies. Chavez himself developed a particularly close relationship with the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a regime hardliner and vocal Holocaust denier.

Military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries has frequently centered on Iran’s Lebanese terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, which continues to use Latin America as a base for money-laundering, drug-trafficking and other criminal operations designed to raise funds. In February 2017, the US Treasury Department announced sanctions against Maduro’s then vice president, Tareck El Aissami, along with other regime officials, for funneling drug money, as well as issuing  hundreds of Venezuelan passports, to operatives of Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Syria and Turkey also leapt to Maduro’s aid on Thursday. A spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry said that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime “condemns in strongest terms going to extremes by the US and its blatant interference in the affairs of Venezuela, which constitutes a flagrant violation of all international norms and laws and a brazen attack against Venezuelan sovereignty.” Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who hosted Maduro on three separate occasions in 2018 — told journalists in Ankara that he had phoned the Venezuelan leader and urged him to “stand tall, brother.”

Several democratic nations in the Western hemisphere have meanwhile joined the US in recognizing Guaido’s interim government in Venezuela, among them Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru.

A statement on Thursday afternoon from the State Department reiterated American support for “interim President Guaido,” adding that the US “does not consider former president Nicolas Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata.”

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