The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez told a crowd at the University of Tehran in July 2006, “If the U.S. succeeds in consolidating its dominance, then humankind has no future. Therefore, we have to save humankind and put an end to the U.S.”
Chávez was on one of several trips he’d make to Iran during his presidency, an era which encompassed Iranian counterparts Mohamed Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With the latter, Chávez declared an “axis of unity” against “U.S. imperialism” in July 2007; Chávez reiterating Venezuela’s backing for Iran’s nuclear programme.
In May 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA for defying U.S. law and shipping two tankers of an oil product to Iran – part of the annual bilateral trade between the two countries worth several hundred million dollars. Chávez seemed not to care, pledging that Venezuela would “stay by Iran at any time and under any condition.” Indeed, so tight did Venezuelan-Iranian relations become, that at Hugo Chávez’s funeral in March 2013, Ahmadinejad kissed Chávez’s coffin and wrote that Chávez would “return on resurrection day” along with religious figures such as Jesus.
Chávez’s resurrection was not necessary to safeguard Venezuelan-Iranian collaboration. Chávez’s successor as Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, reaffirmed strong ties with Iran, sending his Foreign Minister Elías Jaua to Tehran to meet Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani in August 2014 to express shared support of the Palestinian state; also, agreeing to not recognise Israel as a legitimate state. Iran has been openly supportive of Venezuela even as Maduro’s popularity has faded.
Venezuela is now in a state of chaos. Daily street riots, soaring inflation, rocketing homicide rates and a collapsing, oil-dependent economy wracked by low oil prices and a lack of investment since Chávez came to power, all combining to make Venezuela a magnet for narcotraffickers, gun-runners and extremist entities attracted by cash-and-carry passports sold by increasingly hard-up and corrupt Chavistas. Even during the Chávez years, groups of Salafis showing up at Caracas international airport would be unheard of – Venezuela’s Muslim population, los turkitos, back then was tiny, westernised and heralded mostly from Turkey or Lebanon. Nowadays, if newcomers carry enough hard currency, the Chavista authorities of this failed socialist state welcome everyone and anyone as residents whatever their motives.
Iran’s activities in Venezuela used to be more of a problem for Israel than the U.S. When Venezuela threatened to sell its 21 F-16 Fighting Falcons to Iran in 2006 – at least one was sent packed in parts on a Boeing 707 Venezuelan air force plane – this was more of a direct threat to Israel. In 2009, a leaked Israeli classified government report confirmed that Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrillas had set up cells in Latin America, claiming Venezuela had issued permits that allowed Iranian residents to travel freely across South America.
More recently, since Cuban advisors have infiltrated Venezuela’s national security apparatus and operate on the inside of Venezuelan military communications and weapons systems, the U.S. has been more on alert. Venezuela’s 50,000 tons of uranium reserves are deemed a viable threat, especially on the back of reports by retired Brigadier General Antonio Rivero, a former insider in the government of Hugo Chávez, who claimed in March 2015 that tractor and automobile plants were built in areas of Venezuela that had easy access to uranium extraction, referring to the municipalities of Heres and Caroni in Bolívar State. Rivero claimed the plants probably served as a commercial smoke screen to hide the extraction of uranium by Iranian military cadres – reports the Chavistas have dismissed as the cost of Rivero’s exfiltration; imperialist black propaganda.
Iran, as recently as November last year, has been chastised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who claim it is repeatedly violating the 130-ton limit of heavy water it uses inside Iran to moderate nuclear fission in its reactors – a condition the Obama-agreed Iran nuclear deal calls for. This heavy water restriction exists to frustrate Iran’s use of its nuclear reactors to manufacture plutonium – a material used in nuclear weapons. It is critical there are strict controls on how much heavy water the Iranians can manufacture to keeping Iran from enriching uranium to make a plutonium bomb. That Iran is repeatedly violating these limits is disquieting. Even more worrying is a continuing Iranian military presence in fenced-off areas of Venezuela’s Guayana, where the Iranians have access to the heavy water which appears naturally in the Orinoco river; a potential supply not counted in IAEA quotas.
In September 2010, the U.S. Justice Department broadcast that a scientist, Pedro Mascheroni, and his wife Marjorie, who both previously worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, had been indicted on charges of communicating classified nuclear weapons data to a person they believed to be a Venezuelan government official and conspiring to partake in the development of an atomic weapon for Venezuela. On June 21, 2013, Mascheroni and his wife pleaded guilty in federal court.
One school of thought says that President Trump should stay out of Venezuela; that American meddling is just what the Chavistas want. Stricter economic sanctions will only harm the starving civilian population while providing the regime with an easy excuse for the country’s economic woes. However, another growing and more hawkish school demands strong-arm measures from the U.S. that protect U.S. national security first; including a purge of Venezuelan-Iranian strategic cooperation around nuclear matters and a scuttling of Obama’s 2016 Iran Nuclear Deal.
First signs from Trump on Venezuela haven’t been propitious. According to Opposition National Assembly deputy Americo De Grazia, Trump’s team accepted $500 million USD from CITGO (PDVSA/USA) for his inaugural celebrations; an act that De Grazia claims was “cynical and hypocritical.” Nonetheless, De Grazia, along with the growing majority of Venezuelans who are fed up with the Maduro regime, “lives in hope.”
Venezuela has fallen hard from its capitalist 1980s, when it enjoyed AA-credit ratings in debt markets; its close ties to Cuba and Iran now pose a real threat to its sovereignty, and to the security of the hemisphere. Surely somewhere near the top of files marked messes left on President Trump’s desk by shamefully slothful Barack Obama rests this Latin American basket case.
Dominic Wightman is a British businessman living between the UK & Venezuela. He is married to the Venezuelan TV Presenter & Fashion Model, Widmaru Calma.