Cooperation between the Venezuelan and Iranian regimes has notably strengthened over the past 10 to 15 years – not always with the best of intentions. Just last week, US officials expressed alarm over the prospect of Iran “beginning to share weaponry with the Venezuelan military” and warning it would not tolerate Iranian missiles ending up in the hands of the South American dictatorship. It came barely a month after Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif returned from a trip to Venezuela where he promised those in attendance, “The era of Western hegemony is over.”
How and why did this covert military alliance come about? Former President Hugo Chávez, the socialist premier of Venezuela from 1999 to his death in 2013, had sown the seeds of a political affinity with Iran but had also wanted to implement a more concerted military and economic project. He sought Iranian investment in Venezuela, beginning with the oil sector, and to this end created a bank called the “Banco Binacional Iran Venezuela.” At the same time, to solicit further Iranian support, the former president had promoted a "letting do, letting go" policy which allowed the use of Venezuela as a lauchpad for Hezbollah – a militant group and effective ideological proxy for Iran – to set up a process of expansion in South America. The latter continues to this day, with Hezbollah soliciting political and financial support across the region.
Hezbollah in Venezuela: An Overview
Joseph Humire, executive director of Washington-based think-tank the Centre for a Secure Free Society, explains that most of Hezbollah’s support bases in South America are within its Arab and Lebanese communities. The largest of these are found in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela. He told IranWire there are nine specific families from the Lebanese community in Venezuela that have aided Hezbollah to establish a presence in the country: chief among them three “clans” known as the Rada clan, the Saleh clan and the Nasr al Din clan.
Hezbollah did operate in Venezuela prior to this, but with the arrival of Chavismo its presence intensified. There is evidence that the group has used Caracas as a strategic point for its financial development, but also for the organization of terrorist attacks: most notably the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people. Evidence presented in court showed that clearly the operation was triangulated in Venezuela. A Lebanese-Venezuelan dual national, Amer Mohamed Akil Rada, whose “Rada clan” is now making a fortune in cryptocurrency with the backing of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s regime, was alleged to have co-orchestrated the attack and also been involved in the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires.
According to a report by the Colombia-based Venezuelan journalist group La Gran Aldea, Hezbollah is raising an estimated three to five million dollars a year from illegal activities including money laundering and drug trafficking in the Triple Border Area: a tract of land on the border of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. IranWire has previously reported on Hezbollah’s incursions into the political arena in Argentina. Another area of intense illicit financial activity for Hezbollah, however, is Margarita Island, Venezuela: better known as the “duty free zone” of the Caribbean.
In 2009, according to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informants, the Venezuelan diplomat Ghazi Nasr al Din used his position at the Venezuelan Embassy in Syria to broker a meeting in the country between Hezbollah, then-Venezuelan Minister of Internal Affairs Tareck El Aissami, and the former head of Venezuelan counter intelligence, Hugo Carvajal Barrios, who is currently subject to a DEA arrest warrant related to the exchange of cocaine for weapons. This deal, negotiated on behalf of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had come to fruition in 2014 and saw a Lebanese cargo plane full of weapons arrived at the presidential hangar of the Maiquetía International Airport in Caracas. From there the arms were transferred to a military base in Guárico, Venezuela.
Another part of the Nasr al Din clan is located precisely on Margarita Island. The clan are widely thought to be “fixers” for Hezbollah, responsible for various pro-Hezbollah money laundering operations and administrators for Hezbollah's commercial activities in Latin America. Another key member is Odas Nasr al Din, to whom Gran Aldea and the Atlantic Council have both attributed the establishment of paramilitary training centres on Margarita Island. Speaking to IranWire, Joseph Humire adds that the objective of these training hubs is more than simply arming a group of people. Rather, he says, the centres appear to provide "training for destabilization operations", which in turn allows the Iranian regime to take better control over the area through Hezbollah. The Nasr al Din brothers are thought to be close to Tareck El Aissami, who has since become Minister of Oil.
Unlike his successor Nicolás Maduro, Hugo Chávez had sought to establish a line that could not be crossed in Venezuela-Iran-Hezbollah relations. The clearest example of this had occurred in 2006 after Teodoro Darnott, a man who called himself the “Imam of Hezbollah in Venezuela” planted a bomb near the United States Embassy in the Caribbean country. Darnott and a co-conspirator were arrested and his base of operations dismantled, in a clear message to those who sought to enforce their position through violence and terrorism in the country.
By contrast, under Maduro, the Atlantic Council affirms that Hezbollah was able to "help turn Venezuela into the country of transnational organized crime and international terrorism." As popular and political opposition to Maduro reached a crescendo last year, multiple parties alleged that the embattled premier had sought support from Hezbollah as a relative unknown in the early stages of his tenure. Keeping Maduro in power also suits Hezbollah due to its now lucrative sanctions-dodging dealings with Maduro’s cash-strapped military cartel, and the freedom it now enjoys to carry out illegal activities in Venezuela. The country is also used as a base for transnational commercial forays: Chilean officials have identified several import-export firms suspected of serving as front organizations or shells for Hezbollah, including Saleh Trading Ltd., which according to reports from the National Institute of Civil Aeronautics (INAC) was importing "textiles" from Venezuela to Chile in a regular basis.
Clinging to Sanctions-Dodging Deals with Iran
In a country racked by daily increases in inflation, economic sanctions and waning support from the international community, Maduro is now in a critical situation. This is in all likelihood why the Maduro regime has also sought to maintain cordial relations with Iran at all costs. Iran, in turn, has made noises of support for Nicolas Maduro – but its real purpose in the country is likely to be business, not politics.
In the past week, Iran has sent its biggest ever flotilla of oil tankers to Venezuela to help the isolated nation with winter fuel shortages. Gasoline exports from Iran to Venezuela have continued for some time now in defiance of US sanctions and despite raids and seizures, for which Iran has branded the US “pirates”. The latest seizure in October was worth more than $40 million. Venezuela’s crude production is also on the rise again and the recently-dispatched Iranian tankers are likely to help export Venezuelan crude, most likely to Russia and China, after discharging fuel.
The business ties between Iran and Venezuela go beyond oil exports. In a symbolic gesture earlier this year the two nations celebrated the opening of Megasis, an Iranian supermarket in Caracas. Behind the scenes the supermarket is thought to be linked to both Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Alex Saab, a pro-Maduro Colombian businessman with Lebanese roots, who was apprehended on June 12 this year by the Colombian Prosecutor's Office in connection with alleged fictitious exports and money laundering. Saab was accused by the United States Department of the Treasury of profiting from "overvalued contracts", including Venezuela's government food subsidy program, and participating in illegal operations linked to gold in the Caribbean country. Despite the fanfare, Megasis supermarket is therefore the perfect example of the kind of support Iran enjoys in Venezuela.
Fears that Iran could be poised to sell missiles to Venezuela have also been mounting for some time. A secretive petrochemical hub and gunpowder factory designed by Parchin Chemical Industries, which is controlled by the Iranian Defense Ministry and is thought to play a key role in the Iranian nuclear program, has been located in the Venezuelan city of Morón for more than 10 years. The project was commissioned to PCI by the Venezuelan Company of Military Industries (Cavim), under the code name Bahman: the eleventh month of the Iranian civil calendar. In 2016, a Brazilian journalist uncovered an official document from 2009 showing Hugo Chávez had signed off on a $1.3 million investment for a joint venture between Venezuela’s state defense contractor and PCI to produce components for solid rocket fuel.
Senior Iranian military commanders have made regular trips to Venezuela in recent years. Despite this, there is as yet no evidence that Iran has sold any missiles to Venezuela. This would come at an extravagant cost to Venezuela, in addition to its needing to implement a satellite system, which would require the assent and political backing of other countries. For the time being at least, what unites Iran and Venezuela is not arms deals but a shared desire to get around US sanctions and manufacture domestic support and cash through proxies such as Hezbollah. It is important not to underestimate this relationship, however, because it has allowed Maduro to consolidate both his own regime and, by extension, other dictatorships on the Latin American continent.
Acknowledging the danger posed by Hezbollah’s presence in Venezuela, meanwhile, is paramount. The military group not only works hand in glove with the government, but has been allowed to be a part of it. This has had serious consequences for the entire continent of South America, from the delivery of weapons to the FARC in Colombia to money-laundering and drug trafficking across borders. The stronger the group's participation within the Venezuelan government, the more momentum it has to expand elsewhere.