Facing a parliamentary vote to oust him and a call for new elections, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Jan. 4 replaced Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz with regime loyalist Tareck El Aissami, the governor of Aragua State. El Aissami’s appointment comes at a critical time for the embattled Bolivarian regime. Venezuela’s economy is spiraling into chaos under the crushing weight of triple-digit inflation, basic commodities shortages, widespread corruption and violent crime.
Maduro is relying on El Aissami to tighten the regime’s grip on power. As it turns out, that is in no small part thanks to his Iran and Hezbollah connections.
Brig. Gen. Mohammad-Reza Naqdi, the new cultural adviser to the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) chief commander and a former chief of the IRGC’s Basij militia, recently announced that a Latin American team visited Iran to learn how to form a Basij-like mobilization force, praising “Iran’s perseverance and success.”
Naqdi did not disclose further details about where this delegation came from, but Venezuela is a likely candidate.
In 2012, the Spanish daily ABC published an extensive expose accusing Venezuela of organizing, training and arming popular militias to control possible street unrest ahead of that year’s presidential elections. The people’s units, named REMI after the Spanish acronym for Fast Deployment Networks (Redes de Movilización Immediata), were modeled after the Iran Basij, which played a critical role in crushing the 2009 post-election protests in Iran.
Days after his appointment, Maduro nominated El Aissami as the head of a newly established committee, which he aptly named the “anti-coup command.” Maduro explained that the command will fight right-wing conspiracies.
In fact, the command — a committee comprising the defense minister, the interior minister, the head of national intelligence and the second most powerful figure in the regime after Maduro — is really tasked with suppressing any protest movement in the country. Helping Venezuela succeed in this respect is a key Iranian interest.
For Iran and Hezbollah, Bolivarian continuity in Venezuela is crucial to their ongoing Latin American operations, of which Caracas is a springboard to the rest of the region. For Maduro, Tehran represents a key security guarantee for his regime’s survival.
That is where El Aissami comes in.
Despite the Baathist family background — his father headed the Venezuelan branch of the Iraqi Baath Party — and his Lebanese Druze origins, El Aissami seems to prefer the Islamist Shiite revolutionary Hezbollah and Iran over the Baath’s supposedly secular pan-Arabism.