On January 1, a small story in the Cuban media was all but overlooked: Cuba and the Pasteur Institute of Iran reached an agreement for the production of an Iranian vaccine against Covid-19. While in Iran the news was delivered by the spokesman of its Organization for Food and Medicines, and then touted with enthusiasm by various official media, including state television, almost all the official media in Cuba preferred to ignore it. Only one local radio station, Radio Bayamo, reported the story.
The Cuban regime has sought to hush-hush the carrying out of clinical trials of the Iranian vaccine in Havana. The second phase of experimentation in humans, according to the brief account from Radio Bayamo, will also be conducted on the island. If the results are good, they will proceed with them in Tehran as well.
In Iran, the development of medicine and biotechnology forms part of a governmental policy that does not skimp on resources to finance projects in these areas through the foundation of the Executive Headquarters of Imam's Directive (Setad), a massive state conglomerate overseen by the president himself. Iran has invested so much in these issues in the past two years that it is currently the Middle East's leader in biotechnology research, as well as one of the top five scientific powers in the region.
It is evident that, in addition to exploiting Cuba as a guinea pig, Iran is taking advantage of these ties with the island to pressure and provoke the United States with its presence in the region, as the prospective leader of what US President George W. Bush once called "the Axis of Evil".
The Cuban regime, which sees the opportunity for an era of detente with President Joe Biden, and a possible easing of its economic crisis, seems reluctant to publicize the Iranian presence much. But Cuba could very well assume a role, yet again, as a satellite dependent upon the whims of a world power that is a declared enemy of the United States.
Strategy: pressure from all sides
If there is one country that has garnered a good number of headlines in the international press thus far in 2021, it has been the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran, which appears on lists of countries sanctioned by the US for "sponsoring terrorism," emerged as a loser in some tense political situations in 2020, but in 2021 Iran seems ready to counterattack.
Several international media sources agree that the escalation of provocative moves by the Iranian government is a reaction to Biden's imminent return to the White House. To date the future Democratic president has exhibited openness to multilateralist positions allowing for the recuperation of areas of influence in foreign policy lost by a blundering Trump Administration. Against this backdrop, Iran is expected to exert pressure to shake off the strong economic sanctions that the US and the European Union (EU) have imposed on it for years.
The first of these political actions came on January 4, with the news that Iran had violated the 2015 nuclear agreement by beginning to enrich 20% of its uranium. For more evidence that this act represented a direct challenge to the West, the news was not even revealed by a news outlet, or intelligence center, but rather by the regime itself, through its spokesmen.
The measure was carefully calculated, the production of consultation with and approval by the Iranian Parliament, with the explicit aim of pressuring the EU to reduce economic sanctions, and Joe Biden, who has declared his intention to resume the nuclear agreement, after Trump abrogated it in 2018 in order to have greater latitude to strangle the regime in Tehran.
Hassan Rohaní, a religious leader and President of Iran, despite admitting the enrichment of uranium, continues to insist that the work with radioactive elements in his country is not being done with a view to manufacturing nuclear weapons. But the West's intelligence services, apparently, are not convinced.
Also on January 4, another event put Iran on the front pages of several European, American and Asian media when it hijacked a South Korean oil tanker, using speedboats of the Revolutionary Guards, an elite military force. The news set off alarms at the Ministry of Defense in Seoul, which, when it asked for an explanation, was told by Tehran that the reasons for the ship's capture were related to "laws to protect the marine environment."
Although the detention of foreign vessels in the Arabian-Persian Gulf is a common practice by Iran, to the point of even involving the British Navy on one occasion, the diplomatic clash with South Korea is for reasons that transcend any alleged protection of the environment.
South Korea, closely linked to the Western powers, has kept a group of Iranian financial assets frozen in its territory for years as part of the sanctions imposed on Iran. Several experts speculate that these assets amount to some 7 billion dollars. Thus, the hijacking of the South Korean oil tanker may constitute a warning salvo by the Tehran regime announcing its willingness to flout a good part of the financial and commercial restrictions it has been subjected to.
Meanwhile, Iran has managed to generate a kind of constant state of alarm in the US, whose intelligence services were worried enough about the Iranians' capacity to make nuclear weapons. Now they are on the lookout for an act of revenge in response to the assassination of military leader Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 by drones sent by Trump. The retaliation promised by Tehran hangs over the US like a Sword of Damocles; in this regard, alarm bells have gone off more than once.
One of these situations came at the beginning of this year, when a covert radio transmission was picked up by a passenger flight and other aeronautical institutions promising a terrorist attack in the United States in response to Soleimani's death. It could not be proven that the threat came directly from Iran, but US Homeland Security is still leery and on the lookout.
Iran, Venezuela and Cuba
Iran is not the only country being sanctioned by the US, nor the only one with a bad reputation among Western democracies. However, it is one of the nations that, despite these traits, can be considered a serious power in several areas, including the sciences.
Isolated in a politically turbulent region dominated by Israel, the Tehran regime has sought to create its own zones of influence inhabited by other "rogue states", as Acting US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Kozak once called countries like Cuba and Venezuela.
Throughout 2020, for example, Iran worked with Venezuela as a "trade partner"; though financially unprofitable, the move paid geopolitical dividends. The Maduro regime, which drove the Venezuelan oil industry to an unprecedented collapse, was suddenly saved by Iran, which sent it a whole fleet of ships loaded with crude. The vessels, moreover, were left at Maduro's disposal to be used as export instruments. The most curious thing about this aid is that it came at a time when neither Russia nor China dared to defy the US naval cordon on Venezuela.
Since then Iran's influence over Venezuela has only grown, making it a privileged partner of the South American country in terms of energy, health and even food. While many Venezuelan markets closed in 2020 due to the economic crisis, Iran seized land expropriated from a French-Colombian company in Venezuela and opened what promises to be the first of many Iranian supermarkets in Caracas.
This close relationship with Venezuela is little more than a provocation of the United States, another act of pressure on the part of Tehran, though, for the Maduro regime, it has been like a life saver in the midst of a shipwreck. Perhaps Iran's most daring ploy to gain influence in Latin America is the one it just carried out in Cuba.
Iran is expected to continue with this policy throughout 2021, and become the power around which the rest of the world's rogue states revolve, like satellites. If this alliance continues, the Cuban regime will delve into some very dangerous territory, as Iran is a cunning power that engages in blackmail with the prospect of nothing less than nuclear weapons as its leverage.