Venezuela's Chavez: A Friend to Iran
DEBATES IN Washington about Hugo Chávez often end with the dismissive conclusion that the Venezuelan strongman poses no threat to the United States. If that's right, it's not because he isn't trying. For years he has been traveling the world in an effort to build alliances with present or former U.S. enemies, from Cuba to Vietnam. He dreams of standing at the head of a global anti-American military alliance. Most of his efforts have been rebuffed; some have produced mere buffoonery, like his annual, ludicrous love-fest with Belarusan dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
But Mr. Chavez has clearly forged a bond with one leader who is as reckless and ambitious as he is: Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The growing fruits of this relationship, and its potential consequences for U.S. security, have not gotten as much attention as they deserve.
Mr. Chávez was in Tehran again this week and offered his full support for Mr. Ahmadinejad's hard-line faction. As usual, the caudillo made clear that he shares Iran's view of Israel, which he called "a genocidal state." He endorsed Iran's nuclear program and declared that Venezuela would seek Iran's assistance to construct a nuclear complex of its own. He also announced that his government would begin supplying Iran with 20,000 barrels of gasoline a day -- a deal that could directly undercut a possible U.S. effort to curtail Iran's gasoline imports.
Such collaboration is far from new for Venezuela and Iran. In the past several years Iran has opened banks in Caracas and factories in the South American countryside. Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, who has been investigating the arrangements, says he believes Iran is using the Venezuelan banking system to evade U.S. and U.N. sanctions. He also points out that Iranian factories have been located "in remote and undeveloped parts of Venezuela" that lack infrastructure but that could be "ideal . . . for the illicit production of weapons."
"The opening of Venezuela's banks to the Iranians guarantees the continued development of nuclear technology and long-range missiles," Mr. Morgenthau said in a briefing this week in Washington at the Brookings Institution. "The mysterious manufacturing plants, controlled by Iran deep in the interior of Venezuela, give even greater concern."
Mr. Morgenthau's report was brushed off by the State Department, which is deeply invested in the Chávez-is-no-threat theory. State "will look into" Mr. Morgenthau's allegations, spokesman Ian Kelly said Wednesday. Meanwhile, Mr. Chávez is off to Moscow, where, according to the Russian press, he plans to increase the $4 billion he has already spent on weapons by another $500 million or so. Mr. Chávez recently promised to buy "several battalions" of Russian tanks. Not a threat? Give him time.