Deepening Venezuela-Iran Alliance Stokes Concern

By Patrick Goodenough | September 10, 2009 | 4:12 AM EDT

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. (AP photo)

( – The United States watches closely and follows links between Iran and Venezuela “very seriously,” the State Department said in response to fresh claims of a deepening collaboration between the two governments hostile to the U.S.
Spokesman Ian Kelly said allegations made by veteran Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau this week were serious and would be looked into.
In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Morgenthau addressed what he called “the blossoming relationship between what might seem unlikely bedfellows.” He said Iran and Venezuela were “creating a cozy financial, political, and military partnership.”
Morgenthau said the Islamic regime in Tehran had found in Venezuela’s left-wing government “the perfect ally,” one whose financial system could be exploited to get around sanctions imposed against Iran for its nuclear activities.
Furthermore, he said, “its geographic location is ideal for building and storing weapons of mass destruction far away from Middle Eastern states threatened by Iran’s ambition and from the eyes of the international community.”
With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cooperating publicly with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the scientific, technical and financial areas, Morgenthau argued, “there is little reason to doubt Venezuela’s support for Ahmadinejad’s most important agenda, the development of a nuclear program and long-range missiles.”
“So why is Chavez willing to open up his country to a foreign nation with little in shared history or culture?” he said. “I believe it is because his regime is corrupt, hell-bent on becoming a regional power, and fanatical in its approach to dealing with the U.S.”
The speech came just two days after Chavez, on his eighth official visit to Iran, made a public sanctions-busting pledge: Venezuela will provide Iran with 20,000 barrels of gasoline a day from October if a U.S.-led effort to toughen existing U.N. sanctions by adding gas imports goes ahead.
Washington is believed to be considering targeting gas imports if Iran does not meet a late-September deadline to stop cooperating with the international community to resolve the nuclear dispute. Although it is the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter, Iran relies on imports for some 40 percent of its gas requirements.
“We would expect Venezuela, as any other U.N. member, to fulfill their obligations under the decisions of the U.N. Security Council to call upon Iran to meet its obligations under various Security Council resolutions relating to Iran,” Kelly said.
The State Department says the sanctions imposed against Iran under three Security Council resolutions – 1803 (2008), 1747 (2007) and 1737 (2006) – are legally-binding because they invoke Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter (Some scholars argue that in order to be binding the measures must in addition state that a given situation represents a threat to international peace and security.)
Chavez has long come down on Iran’s side in its nuclear dispute with the international community.
At the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Venezuela in September 2005 was the only member of the 35-strong board of governors to vote against a resolution critical of Iran.
When the IAEA board the following February voted to refer Iran to the Security Council, Venezuela was joined by Cuba and Syria in siding with Tehran.
Morgenthau in his speech pointed to other incidents that have raised concerns in ties between Iran and Venezuela, including the involvement in Venezuela of Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist organization. (Venezuela has a large Arab, especially Lebanese population.)
In June 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that a Venezuelan diplomat in Lebanon was working for Hezbollah and Chavez’ government was “employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers.”
The department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said Ghazi Nasr al-Din had “counseled Hezbollah donors on fundraising efforts and has provided donors with specific information on bank accounts where the donors’ deposits would go directly to Hezbollah.”
Nasr al-Din, a Venezuelan national of Lebanese origin, was added to a list of individuals tied to terrorism and OFAC said any assets in the U.S. would be frozen.
OFAC at the same time designated another man based in Venezuela, an alleged Hezbollah financial backer named as Fawzi Kan’an, as well as two Caracas-based travel agencies owned by him. The U.S. government said Kan’an had “met with senior Hezbollah officials in Lebanon to discuss operational issues, including possible kidnappings and terrorist attacks.”
Another incident cited by Morgenthau was OFAC’s imposition of sanctions last October against an Iranian bank “for providing or attempting to provide financial services to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and its Armed Forces Logistics, the two Iranian military entities tasked with advancing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”
Morgenthau concluded his speech by saying it was important that government officials and the public were aware of Iran’s “growing presence” in Latin America, and that Venezuela’s neighbors understand the implications.
“Brazil, whose constitution prohibits nuclear weapons, can play a significant role in influencing Chavez.”
The U.S. and the international community should also consider ways to monitor and sanction Venezuela’s banking system, he said.
Morgenthau has been Manhattan DA since 1974. He turned 90 last July.
Terror-sponsor calls
Senior administration officials have raised concerns publicly about Iran’s involvement in Latin America.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last May that the growing influence in the region of both Iran and China was “quite disturbing,” and Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate committee earlier he was worried about “the level of, frankly, subversive activity the Iranians are carrying on in a number of places in Latin America.”
Some members of Congress have been pushing for Venezuela to be added to the State Department’s list of terror-sponsoring states, citing links with Iran, Hezbollah, Cuba and the Colombian rebel group FARC. Iran and Cuba are both on the list.
Florida Republican Reps. Connie Mack and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen introduced a resolution last year calling on the administration to add Venezuela to the terror-sponsors list. Ros-Lehtinen has called Chavez “Iran’s personal broker to the Western Hemisphere.”
In the Senate, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) last July succeeded in getting inserted into the Department of Defense appropriation legislation an amendment requiring the Director of National Intelligence to report on support provided by Venezuelan officials to terrorists.
The DNI report must include information about all weapons sales and purchases since 1998 – Chavez took office in early 1999 – about any forms of support for Hezbollah and FARC, and about “the mining and shipping of Venezuelan uranium to Iran, North Korea, and other states suspected of nuclear proliferation.”
In its most recent annual report on global terrorism, the State Department raised concerns about Venezuela’s stance towards terrorist groups, noting Chavez’ “ideological sympathy” for FARC, Hezbollah activity in Venezuela, and the fact that passengers on regular flights connecting Caracas with Tehran and Damascus “were reportedly subject to only cursory immigration and customs controls” on arrival in Venezuela.
“Venezuelan citizenship, identity, and travel documents remained easy to obtain, making Venezuela a potentially attractive way station for terrorists,” the report said.
In May 2008, Venezuela was re-certified as a country “not cooperating fully” with American antiterrorism efforts under U.S. arms export legislation.
Designation as a terror-sponsor imposes sanctions including a ban on arms-related exports and sales, controls over exports of dual-use items, prohibitions on economic assistance, and a range of financial restrictions.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow