Venezuela, Maduro's Greatest Threat May Be Old Friends

Anti-government protesters last month in Valencia, Venezuela
Francisco de Miranda military base in Caracas this week amid protests
Alidad Vassigh


Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is still in charge — that much we know. What is less clear is whether he has a stronger or weaker grasp on power after the murky late-night helicopter shooting at the Supreme Court building, and a mob attack on parliament this past week.

The brazen assaults on power may help Maduro justify a clamp down on the opposition, but they might also hasten a coup or all-out civil war. Caracas-based daily El Nacional reports that several former loyalists are currently undermining the ruling government's authority far more than longtime opponents to Maduro, including several who are in prison.

One is the former interior minister, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, whom Maduro has insinuated was involved in Tuesday night's helicopter assault. Rodríguez scoffed at the accuracy of the president's intelligence reports, stating he had nothing to do with the fugitive pilot, Óscar Pérez, who is also an actor.

The most notable opposition figure to emerge in recent months is Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, a former Maduro loyalist. In March she denounced as illegal the bungled attempt by the president and the Supreme Court to simply "cancel" parliament, and has opposed the touted Constituent Assembly and vowed to defend with her life the Bolivarian constitution laid down by the late president Hugo Chávez. On Wednesday, she ridiculed Maduro's declarations about a "terrorist attack" on the Supreme Court, saying he was seeing terrorism everywhere.

The political maneuvering at the top changes little about the dire state of daily life for millions of Venezuelans.

Despite support building for Ortega, as evidenced in recent footage of bystanders applauding her in a Caracas bakery, authorities have frozen her accounts and prevented her from leaving Venezuela. She is to appear in court next week for questioning.

The political maneuvering at the top changes little about the dire state of daily life for millions of Venezuelans. Some have noted that people have now mastered the routine of combining anti-government protests with searching for food and consumer products that are hard to come by.

But Maduro's determination to hold on to power at any cost may well push the country into civil war. On Tuesday, government supporters briefly besieged parliament, preventing legislators from leaving, while the Speaker, Julio Borges, was separately shown being pushed out of the parliamentary building by a National Guard colonel.

Ortega is breaking ranks — Photo: Wikipedia

Fatalities after three months of protests have now reached 80, and the opposition is planning another major anti-government protest in Caracas. But El Universal daily also reports that army vehicles are now increasingly visible and mobile in the capital.

With longtime opposition figures jailed, attention is increasingly focused on Ortega, who must walk a fine line of vigorously countering Maduro with calls to remain within the law — she is, after all, the Attorney General. Denouncing "state terrorism" on Wednesday, she told the press in Caracas that "we are facing barbaric actions. They are promoting violence ... inciting an armed insurrection. It's like they are desperate for a military uprising. I call on all Venezuelans to abide by the Constitution and the law."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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