Iran’s influence in Venezuela: Washington should worry

The same week that President Obama downplayed the threat to U.S. security from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, a high-level delegation from Hezbollah was visiting Caracas and Havana. Ammar Musawi, head of Hezbollah International Department, praised Cuba as a model on how to oppose “imperialist hegemony, arrogance, and plunder.” In Venezuela, he met with the Vice-Foreign Minister and condemned the “ferocious attack” against their Syrian ally. Venezuela’s growing relations with Iran and Chávez’ support for terrorist groups both in the Americas and the Middle East should worry the U.S.

The most remarkable and dangerous foreign policy initiative of the Chávez regime has been allying Venezuela with Iran. Chávez has allowed the Iranians to use Venezuelan territory to penetrate the Western Hemisphere and to mine for uranium in Venezuela. Chávez policy is aiding Iran in developing nuclear technology and in evading U.N. sanctions and U.S. vigilance of the Iranian drug trade and other illicit activities.

The Chávez regime is also providing Venezuelan passports to Iranian operatives. Venezuela’s Mining and Basic Industries Minister Rodolfo Sanz, acknowledged that Iran is “helping Venezuela to explore for uranium.”

What would stop the Iranians, once they develop their own weapons, from providing some to their close ally in Caracas? Or worse, will the Iranians use Venezuela as a transshipment point to provide nuclear weapons to terrorist groups? Or with the help of Venezuelans, would the Iranians smuggle a nuclear weapon into the U.S.?

Given Chávez’s erratic and irresponsible behavior, these possibilities should not be dismissed lightly. Fidel Castro helped the Soviet Union surreptitiously introduce nuclear weapons into Cuba aimed at the United States. The October 1962 missile crisis is a grim reminder that poor U.S. vigilance, a daring leader in the Caribbean and a reckless dictator in Russia almost brought the world to a nuclear holocaust.

Iran is also providing Venezuela with technical assistance in the areas of defense, intelligence, energy and security. Iranians, as well as Cuban personnel, are advising and protecting Chávez and training his security apparatus. This triple alliance represents a clear threat to the hemisphere.

Chávez is also using Venezuela’s oil wealth for other purposes. Chávez’ support for Cuba exceeds $7 billion per year in subsidized petroleum shipments and investments in Cuba’s oil infrastructure. The Venezuelan regime supports a variety of leftist, anti-American regimes in Latin America including Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. And Chávez has spent more than $6 billion in purchasing Russian weapons, creating a longterm Venezuelan dependency on the Russian military. Venezuela remains an open back door for Cuba’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian weapons.

Emboldened by Venezuela’s vast oil resources and his close relationship with Iran and Russia, Chávez has laid claim to the leadership of the anti-American movement in the region. The collapse of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro’s illness and Cuba’s weak economy thrusted the leadership of Latin America’s left onto Chávez. If Fidel was the godfather of revolutionary/terrorist/anti-American groups, Chávez is the trusted “capo.”

The Venezuelan leader has manipulated past elections, and will manipulate future ones. He is increasingly deepening his Bolivarian revolution by weakening and subverting Venezuela’s democratic institutions. At best, Venezuela’s weapons purchases from Russia are leading to a major arms race in the region, with Colombia acquiring U.S. weapons and Brazil turning to France. Other countries, such as Ecuador and Peru, are also spending their much-needed resources in the acquisition of weapons. A coalition of Venezuela and its allies, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, may develop into a club of well-armed, anti-American regimes exercising influence in the region by intimidating its neighbors.

Over the years, U.S. policy has either ignored or mildly chastised Chávez for his extremism. That policy is no longer viable or prudent. The United States needs to develop policies that undermine the Chávez regime, organize the opposition and accelerate the end of his rule. Covert operations to strengthen opposition groups and civil society need to be implemented. Vigilance and denunciation of Venezuelan-Iranian activities and Chávez’s meddling in Colombia and elsewhere are critical to gain international support for U.S. policies.

While regime change in Venezuela may be a difficult policy objective, U.S. policymakers need to understand that the long-term consolidation of Chavista power may present a greater threat than the Castro regime posed in the 1960s. Unlike Cuba, Chávez has significant oil wealth and Venezuela is a large country that borders on several South American neighbors.

Chávez’s alliances with Iran, Syria and other anti-American countries, and his support for terrorist groups, are as formidable a challenge as the old Cuba-Soviet alliance. The United States can also weaken Chávez’s power, and that of Russia, Iran and other countries, by a systematic policy that lowers the world price of petroleum.

A comprehensive, alert policy is required to deal with the Venezuela-Iran threat. Chávez is, after all, Fidel Castro’s disciple and heir in the region. The lessons of the Missile Crisis of 1962 should increase our uneasiness about Chávez’s adventurism and Iranian motivations in Latin America.

Jaime Suchlicki is director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. He is author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro.

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