Page last updated at 09:20 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 10:20 UK

The 'axis of annoyance'

By Linda Pressly
BBC Radio 4, Crossing Continents

The town of Calabozo lies south of Caracas, on the hot, flat plains of Venezuela. Mud spattered pick-up trucks rattle along the streets. It is cattle country, a region dominated by farming.

Veniran tractor
Agriculture is just one sector where the two countries have partnerships

Inside the entrance to the Ministry of Agriculture compound, a brand new tractor is displayed.

This is a Veniran tractor.

It was created with Iranian know-how in a Venezuelan factory - a potent symbol of co-operation between a Muslim theocracy and a socialist republic.

Alberto farms rice and livestock. "My very first tractor was a Veniran model," he says.

"I bought it at a discount with a cheap government loan. Things have really changed around here because of the agreements with the Iranians."

"Before I was just a hired hand, I couldn't even aspire to being a farmer. Now I have all the machinery I need, thanks to the government of President Chavez."


Veniran tractor garage
Agreements between Venezuela and Iran cover a wide range of industries

In the past five years Iran and Venezuela have signed dozens of agreements in all kinds of sectors - banking, construction, food processing, engineering, transport, and, of course, oil.

Joint investments total around $20 billion (£12bn).

Iran is by no means Venezuela's principal economic ally, but there is an added political edge to this relationship.

Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad not only share a mutual respect and admiration, but also a pronounced distrust of the West - especially the US.

On his television programme, Alo Presidente, Hugo Chavez offered his Iranian counterpart unconditional support following the demonstrations in Iran after the June elections.

"Today I spoke with President Ahmadinejad of Iran. I assured him of our total solidarity as he's under attack from global capitalism.

"He told me, don't worry President, we'll come out on top. And I said I don't doubt it - inshallah. President Ahmadinejad thanked me, and sent a fraternal hug to the Venezuelan people."


Iranian built housing in Calabozo
Iranian workers have moved to Venezuela

Calabozo is reaping some of the benefits of that fraternal hug.

On the edge of town, a huge housing complex rises from the rust-coloured earth.

An Iranian company is providing the expertise and engineering skill.

Andre Bandari, an Iranian, is the site manager at the new Veniran maize-processing plant. He says this is one of 10 planned across Venezuela.

The Iranians who have built the factory stay for anything from six months to a year.

For the first time our young people are being trained properly
Maria Cristina Rodriguez
United Socialist Party

"This is the first time that Iran has made such major arrangements with a non-Muslim country, so the workers have to improvise."

"They pray at home, and to get halal meat they either make friends with a local butcher, or prepare their own."

Maria Cristina Rodriguez, one of the workers from President Chavez's United Socialist Party, is proud of Calabozo's association with Iran.

"For the first time our young people are being trained properly," she says.

"The Iranians are teaching them how do things. They are bringing their knowledge here, and building up the industrial base of the region."

Even her elderly father has a Veniran tractor.


"Tractors, influence and angst" was a phrase coined by a Farsi news agency to sum up the Venezuela-Iran axis: tractors for poor Venezuelans like Maria Cristina's dad, influence for Presidents Chavez and Ahmedinejad, and angst for Washington DC.

The alliance between Iran and Venezuela has certainly generated a good deal of worry and suspicion internationally. One bright spark in Washington DC called it "the axis of annoyance".

Onofrio de Nino Garcia
The relationship's just got stronger, and we don't know where it's taking us
Onofrio de Nino Garcia

Iran's nuclear programme, and its connection to the Lebanese political and militant organisation Hezbollah have raised concerns about Venezuela's motives.

Michael Chertoff, who was the US Secretary of Homeland Security until January, has concerns.

"You have two countries that are bellicose and aggressive and they seem to have found soul mates in each other. I think that has to be worrisome for anybody concerned about global stability," he said.

In Calabozo there is also unease about the presence of the Iranians.

"When this love story between the Venezuelan and Iranian governments began, it was harshly criticised abroad because of worries about nuclear power," says Onofrio de Nino Garcia, who runs a transport company.

"But our President took no notice. The relationship's just got stronger, and we don't know where it's taking us."

Crossing Continents: VenIran is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 13 August 2009 at 1100 BST and repeated on Monday, 14 August at 2030 BST.

You can also listen to Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer or subscribe to the podcast .

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