Iran’s increasingly close ties with Venezuela are causing concern to western terror analysts, given that Iran has long been a sponsor of Hezbollah. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in an embrace accompanied by increasingly strident anti-US rhetoric from the Latin strongman. That has increased scrutiny of Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America.
Although the Shiite Muslim terrorist organization based is in Lebanon, the group has long been linked to terrorism elsewhere in Latin America. Hezbollah has been held responsible by international experts for the deadly 1990s attacks in Argentina against the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center that killed 114. At least one Western government terrorism expert expressed concern that Hezbollah may be able to more easily engage in moving personnel and materiel within Latin America precisely because of the close ties between Venezuela and the Islamic Republic.
Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon said in June 2008 that the Islamic Republic “has a history of terror in this hemisphere, and its linkages to the bombings in Buenos Aires are pretty well established.” In 2006, Shannon had warned about Venezuela’s closer ties to both Cuban and Iranian intelligence saying, “Cuban intelligence has effectively cloned itself inside Venezuelan intelligence to the point that [our] ability to cooperate and have a relationship with Venezuela on the intelligence side is very difficult,” and “We are worried about the kind of relationship [Mr. Chavez] wants to have with Iran on the intelligence side.”
President Chavez has visited Iran several times and Venezuela has established several joint ventures with the fellow oil exporter. Among them are ventures in cement, automobile, and tractor manufacturing. Besides, Iran and Venezuela has created a $2 billion program to fund social projects in Latin America, including oil subsidies for Cuba and Nicaragua. “One of our broader concerns is what Iran is doing elsewhere in this hemisphere and what it could do if we were to find ourselves in some kind of confrontation with Iran,” said Assistant Secretary Shannon.
According to the Los Angeles Times, a credible intelligence source claimed that Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard of Iran have formed terrorist cells to kidnap Jews in South America and smuggle them to Lebanon. The source alleged that Venezuelans have been recruited at Caracas’ airport to provide information about Jewish travelers. Israel, for example, has warned its citizens of the danger posed by Hezbollah terrorists, who may be seeking revenge for the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in Syria in February 2008. Israel has denied involvement in the killing, and has offered evidence that Syria was responsible.
The warm ties between Venezuela and Iran led to the start of weekly in March 2007 of IranAir flights from Tehran to Caracas, with a stop in Damascus, Syria. These flights were noted by the US State Department’s annual assessment of terrorism. The report indicated that Venezuelan officials often failed to register incoming passengers on these flights into their immigration database and failed to stamp passports. These failures, however, have since been addressed by Venezuela.
Evidence has emerged that Iran may have been operating within Venezuela long before Hugo Chavez took power. In June 2008, the US Treasury Department froze the assets of two Venezuelans after having designated them as Hezbollah supporters and raising funds for the organization. Ghazi Nasr al Din, a Venezuelan diplomat of Lebanese ancestry, is accused of using his position at embassies in the Middle East to raise funds for Hezbollah and “discuss operational issues with senior officials” of the militia. In late January 2006, Nasr al Din facilitated
Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America.