Chávez’s Dangerous Liaisons with Tehran

Hugo Chávez admitted on June 13 that Venezuela is manufacturing Iranian drones and that Iran has built several explosives and chemical facilities in his country. However, Chávez is trying to throw international observers off his scent by acknowledging an unmanned aerial vehicle program for “peaceful purposes.” What  he did not disclose are the many other troubling aspects of the extensive military cooperation between the two rabidly anti-U.S. regimes—not the least of which is that Venezuela secretly shipped an F-16 to Iran in 2006 that could be used today to test the air defenses around Teheran’s illicit nuclear facilities.

U.S. diplomats have convinced themselves—and have tried to convince members of Congress and the media—that Iran’s push into the Americas poses no threat to U.S. security. Indeed, a State Department spokesperson quickly downplayed the significance of Chávez’s admission.

Here’s some of what U.S. diplomats continue to ignore:

The fact that Venezuela shipped one of its U.S.-manufactured F-16 fighter aircraft to Iran was revealed to me last month by a Venezuelan military officer who was present during an Iranian military delegation’s visit to El Libertador Air Base in Palo Negro. Because the Israeli air force operates modified F-16s, the Iranian military could use the purloined Venezuelan aircraft to calibrate its air defense systems.

Chávez also failed to reveal that Iran is bankrolling the production of marine (seaborne) mines that might one day be deployed in the Strait of Hormuz or across shipping lanes leading to the Panama Canal. According to another Venezuelan military source, the director of that mine program purchased some of the necessary technology here in the United States.

Neither did the Venezuelan caudillo explain why six Iranian companies associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and sanctioned by the United Nations, United Kingdom, and European Union for their involvement in Tehran’s illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs are now operating major industrial facilities at strategic locations in Venezuela. For example, the firm Kimia Sanat, which is helping Venezuela build unmanned aerial vehicles near Maracay, Venezuela, was sanctioned under a 2007 UN Security Council resolution.

Parchin Chemical Industries, sanctioned under a UN resolution in 2007 for exporting chemicals used for Iran’s ballistic missile program, has recently completed a factory near Morón, Venezuela, to produce “ball powder,” an explosive propellant. Likewise, Iran’s National Petrochemical Company was sanctioned by the United Kingdom in 2008 but continues to operate a “petrochemical training facility” in Venezuela, which was inaugurated personally by Chávez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006.

The Iranian Offshore Engineering Construction Company, which has operated a private port and shipyard on the strategic Paraguana peninsula since 2008, was sanctioned last year for being involved in the construction of the Fordow uranium enrichment site near Qom.

Chávez failed to reveal that Iran is bankrolling the production of marine (seaborne) mines that might one day be deployed in the Strait of Hormuz or across shipping lanes leading to the Panama Canal.

According to reliable sources in the Venezuelan government, Iranian Major General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the Revolutionary Guard Corps aerospace commander who previously headed Iran’s missile program, visited the facilities in Maracay and Moran in July 2009 and November 2011. An independent source who infiltrated Hezbollah on behalf of a South American security agency attended several lectures from 2006 to 2008 at the Iranian-run petrochemical training facility by radical cleric Mohsen Rabbani, who is wanted by Interpol for his role in the 1992 and 1994 terrorist bombings against the Israeli Embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Chávez is suffering from terminal cancer and may die before Venezuela’s October 7 presidential elections. In the meantime, members of his ruthless inner circle—many of whom are implicated in narcotrafficking and corruption—are determined to hold on to power at all costs. The Venezuelan opposition is waging a lonely battle against an authoritarian regime that is managed by Cuba, bankrolled by China, and armed by Russia and Iran.

U.S. diplomats have been silent on these growing alliances, determined to avoid a public confrontation with Chávez for fear of provoking the bombastic populist. However, these fresh revelations about Chávez’s alliance with Iran demonstrate what he is capable of doing when he is not provoked.

With Iran’s back against the wall, squeezed by new international economic sanctions, it will scratch and claw to hold on to its economic ties to Venezuela, which it uses to gain illicit access to the international financial system and carry its struggle to the United States’ doorstep. As the United States and the international community square off with Iran in the months ahead, we may pay a dear price for having neglected Chávez’s dangerous liaisons with Tehran until it was too late.

Roger F. Noriega held senior positions in the State Department in the administration of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005 and is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His firm Vision Americas represents U.S. and foreign clients.

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