Real Clear World
September 21, 2009
by Jaime Daremblum
It is no exaggeration to say that Venezuela's burgeoning alliance with Iran represents the greatest threat to hemispheric stability since the Cold War. Both governments have supported international terrorist groups operating in South America (including Hezbollah). Both have embraced other terror-sponsoring regimes (such as Syria). Both have initiated an arms buildup. Both have pursued close military cooperation with Russia. Both share a visceral anti-Americanism and are committed to undermining U.S. interests throughout the Western Hemisphere. And, perhaps most ominous, as announced earlier this month by both governments, Venezuela and Iran are now collaborating on the development of nuclear technology.
Their relationship has grown steadily over the past several years, thanks to the aggressive outreach of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Yet for whatever reason, U.S. opinion leaders - politicians, journalists, and others - have tended to ignore or downplay it. In a recent speech to the Brookings Institution, longtime New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau sought to change that. Morgenthau outlined the full extent of the Venezuela-Iran partnership, which has included everything from financial and economic collaboration to energy and military coordination.
In early 2008, for example, Iran established a new bank in Caracas, Banco Internacional de Desarrollo (BID), which was later sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for having financial links to the Iranian military. On its website, BID explains that its mission includes "boosting the economic relations between Venezuela and Iran by facilitating joint projects and ventures in these countries." But Morgenthau noted that "a foothold into the Venezuelan banking system is a perfect ‘sanctions-busting method." In that sense, Venezuela's financial cooperation with Iran is helping the mullahs advance their nuclear program.
Earlier this year, the two countries launched the Tehran-based Iran-Venezuela Joint Bank, which reportedly started with a capital base of $200 million and hopes of increasing that figure to $1.2 billion. On September 6, during a visit to Tehran, Chávez declared that Venezuela and Iran would pump another $100 million into the bank. He also announced that Venezuela would begin selling the Islamic Republic some 20,000 barrels of petroleum a day, projecting that the deal would be worth $800 million. This arrangement will further undercut international efforts to pressure the Iranian regime through sanctions.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to operate suspicious factories in rural, sparsely populated areas of Venezuela. As Morgenthau observed, it has been estimated that Venezuela could have 50,000 tons of uranium reserves. According to the Associated Press, a recent Israeli foreign ministry report suggested that Venezuela and Bolivia (which is led by Chávez crony Evo Morales) are now providing Iran with uranium. There is good reason to be worried that Iran is using its murky manufacturing presence in relatively inaccessible parts of Venezuela to advance its nuclear-weapons aims. The mere prospect that the Iranians could be conducting illicit nuclear activities in Latin America is highly alarming.
The latest State Department survey of global terrorism says that Iran and Venezuela are still running "weekly flights connecting Tehran and Damascus with Caracas. Passengers on these flights were reportedly subject to only cursory immigration and customs controls at Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas." There is persuasive evidence that Hezbollah, the notorious Iranian-backed terror group, has established a presence in Venezuela. In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department accused the Chávez government of "employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers." Besides carrying out murderous attacks throughout the Middle East, Hezbollah has also been implicated in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
At this point, there should no longer be any doubt that the Chávez regime is willing to aid terrorist organizations. Evidence of its support for the drug-trafficking FARC terrorists in Colombia keeps piling up. A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report confirmed that the amount of cocaine transiting through Venezuela has increased "significantly," thanks partly to Venezuelan support for the FARC. This past July, Colombian military forces raided a FARC camp and discovered anti-tank rocket launchers that were originally made in Sweden and then sold to Venezuela. In another interesting development, a prominent newspaper in the European principality of Andorra, a famous tax haven known for its banking secrecy, reported this month that, at the behest of the U.S. Treasury Department, the Andorran government has frozen bank accounts belonging to people who are "close" to Chávez due to concerns over "the financing of terrorism."
Iran, of course, remains the top state sponsor of terrorism. I find it remarkable that Venezuela's growing alliance with the Islamic Republic has not garnered more attention in the U.S. media, or among U.S. officials in Washington. Think about it: The government of an oil-rich, strategically significant country in the heart of Latin America has embraced the world's leading terror sponsor as it works to build nuclear weapons, and members of that same government have directly aided terrorist organizations.
The Venezuela-Iran relationship is now the chief threat to stability in the Western Hemisphere. We ignore that relationship at our peril.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.
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