CUBAN POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST*: A CUBA-IRAN AXIS ?
Fidel Castro began to cultivate an alliance with Iran soon after Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in 1979. Despite the opposition of fundamentalist Islam to Marxist ideology, Castro sought common ground to foster an intimate relationship with the Ayatollah's regime. "We do not think there is contradiction between religion and revolution," Castro declared shortly after Khomeini's followers drove the Shah into exile.(1) Soon after the triumph of Khomeini's Islamist revolution, the Cuban leader dispatched his emissaries to the Ayatollah in search of close ties with the new regime in Tehran. By 1981, when an Iranian government delegation visited Havana, Castro had professed his admiration for the "revolutionary role of Islam" and invited "the Islamic Republic of Iran to have an embassy in Cuba."(2)
Beyond rhetoric, Castro also aligned Cuban foreign policy in support of Iranian aims and positions. Havana backed Tehran at the height of Iran's confrontation with Washington in the early 1980s and adhered to "the plan of the Islamic Republic of Iran...[for] the expulsion of the Zionist regime [Israel] from the United Nations."(3) However, due to Iran's war in the 1980s with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, at the time one of Castro's longest-standing allies in the Middle East, the Cuban government devoted most of its energies to a futile pursuit of unity among its two friends in the Persian Gulf region.(4)
Since the early 1990s, Castro has successfully transcended differences in language, culture, and religion in his quest to forge new strategic bonds with Tehran. As evinced by regular consultations at the highest levels, joint scientific endeavors of relevance to national and international security concerns, and coordinated responses to undermine American initiatives and influence in both Latin America and the Middle East, a Cuba-Iran axis today is no mere phantom menace. Driven by their leaders' deep-seated ideological and theological animosity toward the United States in particular and liberal democratic values in general, the orchestration of efforts by Cuba and Iran -- two state sponsors of terrorism -- constitutes a threat to U.S. foreign policies and interests.
A MEETING OF MINDS
Fidel Castro sees in Tehran a "bastion of dignity and independence."(5) During his long-awaited visit to Iran in May 2001, the Lider Maximo of the Cuban revolution and the Islamic Republic's own Supreme Leader clearly saw eye to eye in their antipathy toward the United States. The affinity of Castro's thought with the radical Islamist ideology espoused by the Iranian government was manifest when Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Castro discussed "Iran-Cuban cooperation" in response to U.S. "hegemony."(6) Seemingly preaching to the choir, Ayatollah Khamenei proclaimed before Castro that "the United States is weak and extremely vulnerable today," and hoped that "U.S. grandeur can be broken." For his part, Castro concurred with words that affirmed and perfectly dovetailed Khameinei's sentiments: "Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees. The U.S. regime is very weak, and we are witnessing this weakness from close up."(7)
IDEOLOGY MEETS BIOTECHNOLOGY
During his visit to Cuba in 2000, Iranian President Khatami toured Havana's flagship Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) and praised the Castro regime's achievements in science and technology. In reference to the United States, Khatami railed against "imperialistic...countries who seek greater economic power" and defiantly declared that "those powers could not monopolize knowledge and technology." To counteract the monopoly of science by the world's powers that be, Khatami called on states such as Cuba and Iran to "absorb the required technology by developing the level of their knowledge."(8)
As Khatami's speech at Cuba's landmark biotechnology facility indicated, scientific collaboration between Havana and Tehran has played a central role in the forging of a tight bond between the two totalitarian states in recent years. Since the early 1990s the Cuban government has entered into several biotechnology cooperation accords and transfer agreements with Iran. The Castro regime has not only transferred to Iran the island's self-developed technology for a hepatitis-b vaccine, erythropoietin (EPO), interferon, streptokinase, and other biotechnology products, but also shipped to Tehran the necessary production equipment. Cuba has also provided advanced training in biotechnology techniques to some 30 Iranian scientists.(9) The state-controlled Pasteur Institute of Iran established its biotechnology department in 1993, the same year that Cuba and Iran signed their first biotechnology cooperation accord.(10) Among those who have pursued advanced biotechnology studies in Cuba is Dr. Behrouz Vaziri, a senior scientist at the Pasteur Insitute in Tehran, who received his postdoctoral training in protein characterization at Havana's CIGB from 1997 to 1998.(11) In addition to the training of personnel, the transfer of know-how, and the ongoing work of Cuban scientists and technicians in Iran, in 1996 Cuba's CIGB formed a joint venture firm, Noavaran Tec Kish, with the Iran's Pasteur Institute. The facility, valued at US$60 million, has been described by Cuba's official press as "the most modern [biotechnology complex] of its type in the Middle East."(12)
While supplying life-saving drugs to the Iranian people may be one of Fidel Castro's motives, particularly given the Cuban dictator's exalted vision of himself as protector of the Third World, revolutionary solidarity alone does not account for Havana's altruism toward "the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2003."(13) According to Dr. Jose de la Fuente, who oversaw biotechnology research and development at Havana's CIGB from 1991 to 1998, "The strengthening of Cuban-Iranian cooperation began with Cuban aid shortly after the Iranian earthquake of 1990...[and] culminated in Iran buying outright [Cuba's]...recombinant protein production technologies in yeast and Escherichia coli, as well as large-scale purification protocols for both soluble and insoluble proteins synthesized in or excreted by them." Given Castro's historically anti-American foreign policy, it would be naive to ascribe such a degree of willful proliferation of dual-use biotechnology(14) to merely humanitarian concerns. As Dr. De la Fuente has observed, "There is no one who truly believes that Iran is interested in these technologies [solely] for the purpose of protecting all the children in the Middle East from hepatitis, or treating their people with cheap streptokinase when they suffer sudden cardiac arrest."(15)
Cuba's strategic geographical location has also proved to be extremely valuable to Iran's political establishment. During last summer's widespread protests by reform-minded Iranian university students against repressive clerical rule, authorities in Tehran turned to Havana for assistance in interfering with the satellite transmission of broadcasts by U.S.-based Farsi-language TV stations. Cuba, with decades of experience in jamming U.S. broadcasts directed at the island, used its Chinese-equipped electronic warfare base near Havana to effectively interfere with the signals. The jamming was identified by a U.S. company as originating some 20 miles outside the city of Havana, precisely in the vicinity of Bejucal where the Cuban military's telecommunications monitoring facility is located.(16)
CUBA AND IRAN: AXIS OF EVIL?
What has Cuba obtained, while inciting American ire, from such close cooperation with Iran? According to U.S. media sources the island nation is "increasingly dependent on Iranian oil," which Tehran apparently ships in generous volumes to the cash-strapped Castro regime.(17) The Iranian government has also extended an annual EUR 20 million (currently US$24.5 million) trade credit line to Havana with a generous two-year repayment term. Thanks to Tehran's economic accords with Havana, Iran is also a captive market for Cuba's limited export offerings. Bilateral trade has thus risen from under US$20 million in 2001 to US$50 million by the close of 2003.(18)
However, it would be erroneous to characterize Cuba's relationship with Iran in primarily economic terms. While Havana undoubtedly benefits from Iranian oil imports, trade financing, and other crutches for the ever-ailing Cuban economy, Fidel Castro does not conduct foreign policy based on purely rational economic factors. On the contrary, Cuba's careful cultivation of relations with Iran illustrates that, with Castro, ideology and political objectives ultimately trump all other considerations. In this regard Islamist Iran and communist Cuba are birds of a feather. Driven by a lifelong hatred of the 'Yankee empire' and its free-market values, Castro's dream is to ultimately slay the capitalist dragon and bring the American Goliath down on its knees. Deliberately selling or sharing Cuban biotechnology to, and placing the island's scientists and technicians at the service of, a terrorist state follows logically from Castro's worldview. Those who dismiss ideology as mere rhetoric do so at their own peril.
After lauding the Islamic revolution for toppling the Shah of Iran, Castro reminded his student audience at the University of Tehran in May 2001 that "one shah remains in the world." In bold remarks that won him ecstatic ovations from the radical Islamic youth that filled the lecture hall, Castro referred to "the shah of imperialism which is entrenched near my homeland," calling Cuba's neighbor to the north "an exploiting shah that wants to impose its system on the entire world and drag it into oppression." Castro then exclaimed to the jubilant crowd, "But as the shah of Iran was overthrown, this shah too will fall!"(19)
Castro's language should not be misconstrued as mere demagoguery. Fidel Castro's willful disregard for the propagation of Cuba's most advanced dual-use biotechnology raises grave concerns. Castro has always been a man of action and, given the United States' current preoccupation with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it would be wise to recall Castro's unequivocal words to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cuba missile crisis in 1962: "I wrote to Khrushchev [on October 26, 1962]...It was my opinion that, in case of an invasion, it was necessary to launch a massive and total nuclear strike [against the United States]."(20)
1. Cf. Damian J. Fernandez, Cuba's Foreign Policy in the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), p. 86.
2. Ibid., pp. 86-87.
3. Ibid., pp. 87-88.
4. Ibid., p. 87.
5. BBC Monitoring Latin America, "Fidel Castro has 'free and frank' talks with President Khatami in Tehran," Tehran, 8 May 2001.
6. Agence-France Presse, "Iran and Cuba bolster ties, strengthen anti-US solidarity," Tehran, 10 May 2001.
8. IRNA, "President Khatami inspects Cuban biotechnology center," Havana, October 1, 2001.
9. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), "Iran Profile - Biological Facilities: Pasteur Institute," [http://www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/Iran/Biological/2305_2375.html].
10. Ibid. See also Pasteur Institute of Iran, [www.pasteur.ac.ir].
11. Cf. curriculum vitae of Dr. Behrouz Vaziri, Department of Biotechnology, Pasteur Institute of Iran, posted online at [http://www.iranbiotech.com/workshops/downstream/vaziri.asp].
12. EFE, "Iran acusa a EEUU retraso construccion fabrica medicinas con Cuba," Tehran, May 9, 2001; Cuba, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) website, under "Republica Islamica de Iran," [http://www.cubaminrex.cu/REGIONALES/AFNMO/ANMO_Iran.htm; and Elson Concepcion Perez, "Fidel in Iran," Granma Internacional (Cuba), 9 May 2001, [http://www.granma.cu/ingles/mayo2/19argel3-i.html].
13. Cf. U.S. Department of State, "Overview of State-Sponsored Terrorism," Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003, [http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2003/31644.htm].
14. According to the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDISS) at Lancaster University (UK), "any nation with a basic pharmaceutical industry -- or even a facility such as a brewery -- has a de facto capability to produce biological weapons." Cf. [http://www.cdiss.org/bw.htm].
15. Cf. Jose de la Fuente, "Wine into vinegar: the fall of Cuba's biotechnology," Nature Biotechnology, October 2001 (Vol. 19, Num. 11).
16. Robert Windrem, "U.S. satellite feeds to Iran jammed," NBC News, 11 July 2003.
18. IRNA, "Iran dissatisfied with Tehran-Havana economic exchange," Madrid, 14 April 2004.
19. Ma'mud Shirvani, "Fidel Castro in Iran: 'The shah of imperialism will fall too'," The Militant, May 28, 2001 (Vol. 65/No. 21), [http://www.themilitant.com/2001/6521/652103.html].
20. Cf. Vincent Touze, "Las amargas confesiones de Fidel," Clarin (Buenos Aires, Argentina), 14 September 1997, [http://old.clarin.com.ar/diario/1997/09/14/suplementos/i-00602e.htm].
*Second of a two-part series on Cuba's historic involvement in, and contemporary ties to, the Mideast region. See also Issue 53 (March 23, 2004) of Cuba Focus on "Cuban Foreign Policy in the Middle East: Part I."