Editor's Note: Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. Ryan Berger is policy advisor at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.
By Christopher Sabatini and Ryan Berger - Special to CNN
The revelation of the strange plot of the Iranian Quds Force’s allegedly contracting a Mexican criminal gang to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. has brought attention to Iranian activities and Islamic extremism south of the U.S. border. Such concerns are nothing new, and since 9/11 a number of reports and allegations have been made of Iranian collusion with governments and the activities of groups like Hezbollah in the hemisphere.
The focus of most of those has been Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The fiery, populist former lieutenant colonel’s courting of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - and his unabashed anti-Americanism and stated declarations to challenge imperialism - have led to all sorts of speculation regarding the degree of intimacy between Caracas and Tehran.
The facts alone of The Chávez-Ahmadinejad “bromance” are discomforting. Iran’s Holocaust-denying president has visited Venezuela three times (trip number four, scheduled for last month, was postponed due to Chávez’ health) since taking office in August 2005. Conviasa, a Venezuelan air carrier, has operated direct flights since 2007 to Tehran with a stopover in Damascus, Syria. And Chávez has introduced Ahmadinejad to his ideological soul mates in Bolivia (President Evo Morales), Ecuador (President Rafael Correa) and Nicaragua (President Daniel Ortega). In all of those countries, the Iranian president has made generous investment offers - for truck factories, cement factors and refineries - though many of those remain unfulfilled.
The nature of the relationship between the Iranian and Venezuelan autocrats undoubtedly warrants further inspection and close observation. But in the midst of concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions - and other sinister designs - as well as fear mongering about Chávez, a series of allegations have floated around that have caught the attention of some serious U.S. media outlets - but without the usual standards of verification and checking multiple sources.
Making allegations of Iranian or terrorist connections is fair game, but the problem comes when these concerns are inflated with weak or even unsubstantiated claims. In some quarters, this is what appears to be occurring with the inflammatory charges of Iranian-Venezuelan nuclear and terrorist collusion. Below is a quick summary of some of those allegations - all of them reviewed by U.S. government sources with access to information.
Heavy Allegations Come to Light
One such indictment points to a purported August 2010 summit in a Caracas-area military compound between senior leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad - all U.S.-designated terrorist groups. U.S. government sources indicate that, while there are indeed Venezuelan officials who have been sanctioned by the government for fundraising for Hezbollah, there is no sufficient evidence to definitively corroborate the meeting in question; for one, the Hamas official in question barely travels. Unfortunately, there was no detailed information on the source for the claim. The story, which appeared as an opinion piece in the Washington Post, went on to cite an unnamed source who confirmed information that was not at all related to this allegation. Then came claims of Al Qaeda operatives in Venezuela planning a chemical attack on the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. Indeed, as the story said, there were allegations of such an attack several years ago, but it was determined to be false by the U.S. embassy itself which had investigated the claim.
Further, analysts unleashed a salvo asserting that Iranian agents, via their Hezbollah proxies, were running rampant on Venezuela’s Margarita Island conducting terrorist training operations with not only radical Muslims from the Middle East and Latin America, but also Colombian guerrillas like the FARC. The only problem is the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2009, published in August 2010, avers that, while there are outside “ideological sympathizers” with Chávez & Co. on the island vacation-paradise, there were no known operational cells of Al Qaeda or Hezbollah-related groups in the Western Hemisphere.
Then there are the claims that Iran is funding uranium exploration in the Roraima Basin along the Venezuela-Guyana border, using a tractor manufacturer as a front company. While a 1950s-era U.S. Geological Survey does indicate high levels of uranium deposits in southeastern Venezuela, a large-scale mining project - as purportedly revealed in an October 2010 article by an official in the Bush 43 State Department - would have to leave a significant footprint, which it does not. What’s more, large barges would be needed to transport the uranium up the Orinoco River, which government sources report there are no signs of.
The same piece cites “media reports” that 22 cargo containers and crates labeled “tractor parts” were found to contain barrels of nitrate and sulfite chemicals - key bomb-making material. The article, however, links to the 2009 State Department terrorism report, which contains no such allegations.
Iran Approaching Mexican Drug Cartels?
Substantiated allegations need to be met with levelheaded policy responses. Iran’s coziness with professed anti-American governments in the Western Hemisphere does warrant cause for concern. Issuing sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) for selling oil to Iran - in violation of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 - is a reasonable measure that most Americans would not dispute. Having the Treasury Department sanction Venezuela’s Banco Internacional de Desarrollo (International Development Bank) - a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Export Development Bank of Iran - for funneling funds to Hezbollah is another. In both cases, the United States has responded appropriately, without overreacting. Just last week, senior U.S. government officials testified that Iran has failed to establish a “meaningful financial foothold” in Latin America.
But in the wake of last week’s arrest of Mansour Arbabsiar, a used-car salesman in Texas with dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, alleging that he followed a narrative fit for an action thriller - a murder-for-hire deal with the notorious Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas - many questions remain. Of course, the mere attachment of the Iran name to a hemispheric partner of the U.S. has set off the alarms of some top U.S. analysts and lawmakers, even if the plot does seem a little dubious.
Immediately after the arrest, Republican Congressman Connie Mack, chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, issued a statement that the plot “proves yet again that Iran has established deep diplomatic, military and covert operations in the Western Hemisphere” and that it “demonstrates the internationally recognized threat the Mexican drug cartels pose to the United States.”
Congressman Mack used the opportunity to call again for Venezuela to be added to the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors. Doing so would play beautifully into the Comandante Chávez’ playbook, who has vilified opponents and pumped up his popularity by stoking nationalism and claiming U.S. plans to invade Venezuela. And it would come just as the Venezuelan leader’s regional popularity is at an all-time low and he starts his re-election campaign against the most serious opposition challenge yet.
Let’s be clear: President Chávez does represent a threat to democracy and to regional stability. He has hollowed out the Venezuelan state, undermined judicial independence, created a context of intimidation toward political opponents and independent civil society, coddled and even supported narcotics traffickers like the FARC, allowed his military to become a protection racket for narcotraffickers and converted Venezuelan territory into a major launching area for Africa- and Europe-bound drugs. The overwhelming public embrace - bordering on fawning - that Chávez has shown Ahmadinejad is reprehensible and deserves close - but documented - attention.
Making allegations of Iranian or terrorist connections is risky business. Acting on them is even riskier. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated claims that Iran had established its largest embassy in the hemisphere in Nicaragua. Only thing was: it wasn’t true, as her State Department in the field informed her. Strike one for U.S. credibility.
All these allegations should certainly be investigated seriously. But they should also warrant dismissal if there is no credible evidence to support them.