Iran’s Latin incursion

Peter Brookes Contributor
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Some folks are alleging that Tehran and Caracas have inked a deal that will establish a joint ballistic missile base in Venezuela, where Iranian missiles, potentially capable of reaching the United States, would be stationed.

If true, this would certainly be cause for alarm.

Of course, while we dig deeper into the matter to learn more, we really shouldn’t be surprised by such a move as Iran is already making significant inroads into Latin America — especially Venezuela.

Not only have Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez become close friends, they’ve also fondly talked of a post-America world and declared an “axis of unity” against the United States.

Iran has also looked to Venezuela to help it evade U.N. economic sanctions on its nuclear program in a number of ways, including the establishment of joint venture banks that help Tehran circumvent international financial restrictions.

But the Tehran-Caracas axis actually goes deeper than this. According to press reports, they’ve signed agreements, pledging military support and cooperation, which may include, among other matters, the aforementioned missiles.

For instance, in 2008, Turkish authorities seized more than 20 containers of “tractor parts” bound from Iran to Venezuela. But instead of tractor parts, the containers were carrying materials used in the production of explosives.

Other security ties seem pretty tight, too, including the reported embedding of Iranian “advisers” with the Venezuelan military.

Moreover, a 2010 Pentagon report to Congress on the military power of Iran stated:

IRGC-QF [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Forces] maintains operational capabilities around the world. … [R]ecent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.

Especially interesting is how Iranian advisers and agents are likely getting to Venezuela.

As far back as 2007, Iran Air and Conviasa (Venezuela’s national airline) began a regular, co-chaired “commercial” flight linking Tehran, Damascus and Caracas, with occasional stops in Beirut to pick up “passengers.”

That’s not all.

Some are saying Iran and Venezuela are also cooperating on some nuclear issues such as basic research and the mining of uranium ore in Venezuela that is then being made available to Iran — once again in violation of U.N. sanctions.

But it’s not just Venezuela that Iran is courting.

Iran has also enhanced its relations with other elements of the anti-American Latin Left in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador, which are countries run — not surprisingly — by leaders close to Venezuela.

As a gesture to these new-found friendships, Iran is reportedly providing “diplomatic training” in Tehran to government workers from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and the Communist Party of El Salvador.

But instead of the art of negotiating, international relations theory and how to work a room at an embassy cocktail party, the Latin visitors are instead being taught intelligence, counterintelligence and crowd control.

But it’s not just Iran that is coming to the region: Its “friends” are, too.

There is little question among experts that Hezbollah operatives out of Syria or Lebanon are passengers on these mysterious Iran Air-Conviasa flights that regularly touch down in Caracas.

Some observers believe the Chavistas may be welcoming Hezbollah operatives to assist the narco-terrorist group, FARC, which has found refuge in Venezuela and been fighting U.S. friend Colombia for decades.

Moreover, the Venezuelan regime would certainly welcome Hezbollah’s help in dealing with the United States — and Hezbollah, no friend of ours, would appreciate the opportunity to operate close to American territory.

In fact, Hezbollah is believed to have a growing relationship with Mexican drug cartels, including benefiting from their smuggling routes into the United States.

Of course, in the short term, worries involve what Hezbollah (and Iran) might do in the region, especially against the United States, should there be military action against the Iranian nuclear program by Israel — or America.

So, while the missile base report isn’t confirmed, it would be no surprise. The involvement of Iran in this hemisphere is a perfect storm that is brewing and, if unchecked, could reach the boiling point in another Cuban missile crisis.

But one thing is for sure: This is no time for complacency.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.