mercoledì, gennaio 28, 2009

Probing the Chavez–Iranian Connection

January 26th 2009

Iran - Chavez and Ahmanijad

Last December 21st, the Italian daily La Stampa published a story putlining the real meaning of the Chavez-Iranian alliance.

Regular flights between Caracas, Damascus and Tehran constitute a device for Venezuela to help Iran send Syria material for the manufacturing of missiles, according to La Stampa. The flights are actually part of a 2006 military cooperation agreement signed between Syria and Iran. The materiel is destined for the "Revolutionary Guards," the main force protecting the Iranian regime, according to the newspaper. In exchange for this materiel, Iran has provided Venezuela with members of its revolutionary guards as well as its elite "Al Quds" unit to strengthen Venezuela's secret services and police.

La Stampa's report is not surprising to those monitoring Hugo Chavez's activities for the past several years. In testimony before Congress on March 5, 2008, it was again pointed out that Iran Air has weekly direct flights between Caracas, Damascus and Tehran. There are no large numbers of passengers that justify weekly travels between theses countries. Therefore, it is reasonable to speculate that these flights transport material which could be highly problematic.

As the crisis in the Middle East continues it is crucial for American decision makers to think about strategies to contain the Iranian influence in our hemisphere as well as Hugo Chavez.

In that same Congressional testimony, the connection between Chavez, radical Islam and Iran was portrayed as part of the mindset of the Venezuelan president to exercise a reign of terror, violence and totalitarian rule by using the same oppressive methods of the Islamic Republic. Such radical groups could be used to develop Venezuela's philosophy of asymmetric war in case of a U.S. or other enemy attack on Venezuela. These tactics propose a style of fighting that is determined and suicidal, and considered to be useful in confronting a more powerful enemy, such as the U.S. However, radical Islamist tactics might also serve to impose totalitarian rule first in Venezuela and then in other countries willing to join the Chavez coalition.

Last October 2008, the CSP Menges Hemispheric Security Project organized a briefing for Congressional staffers working on the Western Hemisphere. Among the many important topics discussed at the briefing was the issue of Iranian partnerships with dubious local businessmen in factories located in sensitive areas with access to strategic routes. One of the speakers at the conference talked about those partnerships as possibly including connections between drug trafficking networks that control sensitive strategic areas and Iran. In fact, Iran has established a financial and business infrastructure with Chavez's consent and encouragement that now includes banks, gold mining, a cement plant, a tractor and bicycle factory, a tuna processing plant and a joint oil venture.

The intensified commercial links dovetails with incident recently reported by several well known Turkish newspapers. They reported that on December 30 the confiscation of 22 containers from an Iranian cargo ship bound for Venezuela. The ship was stopped by Turkish authorities in the port of Mersin near the Syrian border. Iranian authorities stated that the contents of these containers were "tractor parts" bound for their factory in Venezuela's Bolivar state. When the Turkish authorities inspected the shipment, they did not find tractor parts but components to build weapons, bombs, and possibly some radioactive material (this material is still under investigation).

It is also known that Chavez has for some time provided Venezuelan territories and airports to drug traffickers, a fact critics assert is often disregarded by State Department officials. Today, there are businesses that look like regular commercial operations, and tuna and tractor factories that look like regular factories, all of them located in sensitive areas in Venezuela near the Orinoco River (an important connection between Colombia and Venezuela) with access to the Caribbean Sea and to the Atlantic Ocean. Intellignece sources assert that these factories serve drug operations and involve partnerships with Iranian elements. As such, they provide Iran with vital long-distance access to areas such as Panama as well as the drug-trafficking routes most likely used to transport drugs overseas. Weapons and money in this fashion can also be provided to FARC and other Latin American terrorist groups.

Just as troubling, Iran signed an agreement with Venezuela and Nicaragua to jointly build a $350 million deep water port at Monkey Point, on the east coast of Nicaragua. This location is strategically near Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba, all which maintain special proximity to Mexico.

Other elements of cooperation between Venezuela and Iran involve an Iranian bank inside Venezuela called el Banco Internacional de Desarollo, and a Venezuelan affiliate, as well as many other Venezuelan banks including BANESCO, which also owns banks in Panama and Florida. This money could be helping Iran, drug traffickers and other dubious groups not only in its operations in Latin America but also constitute a method of avoiding the international sanctions currently facing Iran. Indeed, it has been suggested by some analysts that the money Iran generates from its Venezuelan "businesses" is used to finance Hamas and Hezbollah.

As has been often noted, this is not merely a marriage of convenience. It involves a strong ideological affinity. As Japan, Italy and Germany were natural allies during WWII, Chavez's Venezuela is part of an axis with Iran which is joined by Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. A case in point is Chavez's recent expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Venezuela, and his very strong endorsement of Hamas.

The evidence gathered thus far about the Chavez operation is enough to raise a red flag that U.S. intelligence and security agencies cannot afford to disregard.

Dr. Luis Fleischman is a senior advisor to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. He is also an adjunct professor of Political Science and Sociology in Wilkes Honor College at Florida Atlantic University.