On September 24 the International Atomic Energy Agency passed a resolution that, in part, called on Iran "to observe fully its commitments and to return to the negotiating process that has made good progress in the last two years." The resolution is just the latest chapter in the ongoing dispute over Iran's nuclear programs, but a look at the votes cast by the IAEA's members reveals a great deal about the international landscape: Of the IAEA's 35 board members, 22 voted in favor of the resolution, 12 abstained (including Russia, which is heavily invested in Iran's nuclear programs), and one nation voted against the resolution.
That lone "no" vote was cast by Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, which has increasingly become Iran's willing and vocal ally in the western hemisphere.
While the secular neo-communist Chávez and the Islamist mullahs are certainly strange bedfellows, they have found much common ground. Explaining his country's "no" vote on the IAEA resolution, Venezuela's ambassador to Iran, Arturo Anibal Gallegos Ramirez, went as far as to say that "the principles and ideals that inspire the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela" are "inspired by values common to the Iranian Islamic Revolution."
The new Iranian president has expressed similar sentiments. According to an Iranian state-run news agency, more than a month before the IAEA resolution was passed, President Ahmadinejad called Chávez to thank him for his support in the international arena. Ahmadinejad told Chávez that his support was proof of their deep "brotherly and lasting relations."
The common "principles and ideals" uniting these two pariahs in their "brotherly" relationship, of course, are predominately anti-American in nature. Leaders from both countries have openly discussed their alliance in terms of combating "American imperialism."
IN THE NUCLEAR REALM the alliance raises a host of new troubling issues. Should the international community ever find a way to convince Russia to stop facilitating the mullah's nuclear program, the Iranian-Venezuelan alliance would be of less consequence. Based on past failures, this seems unlikely. It is more likely that Iran will continue upon its present course largely unchecked, which raises the possibility that Venezuela, with Iranian assistance, will at some point enter the market for nuclear technologies.
In fact, Chávez has already promised as much. During a recent weekly radio address, Chávez rationalized Venezuela's burgeoning pursuit of "peaceful" nuclear energy thusly, "Brazil has advanced in its nuclear research, nuclear power, and that's valid. Argentina too, and we also are starting to do research and projects in the area of nuclear energy, with peaceful aims of course." Chávez also argued that it is the sovereign right of both nations to pursue nuclear energy. Chávez's ambassador to Iran further explained that a common interest in the nuclear realm has resulted in "close collaboration" between the two nations.
In reality, both nations are flush in petrodollars and neither has any real need for "peaceful" alternative energy sources. Iran's supposedly-civilian nuclear program has long served as an expedient cover for the mullah's more nefarious intentions. That Chávez openly lusts for an Iranian-style nuclear program suggests that he, too, may have similar designs.
CARACAS'S SUPPORT for Tehran's nuclear ambitions should come as no surprise. Over the last several years the two outcasts have entered into dozens of bilateral agreements, covering everything from tractors, to cement, to automobile plants. Chávez has visited Iran several times and on a November 2004 trip, Chávez and then-Iranian President Khatami negotiated more than two dozen agreements. Most of these agreements were signed when Khatami paid a reciprocal visit to Caracas in March of this year.
The agreements are said to be valued at more than $1 billion and according to the Iranian news agency, Mehr, Tehran will "establish small industrial towns in Venezuela." While explaining these agreements on his national radio show, Chávez said that Iran "is transferring technology to Venezuela" and that a group of "Iranian young professionals" had already entered the country. In September the two nations signed contracts worth an additional $200 million and covered cooperation in a variety of small-scale machining industries.
THE MOST IMPORTANT AREA of economic cooperation is in the oil industry. According to a Congressional Research Service report from earlier this year, "a team from Venezuela's state oil company (Petroleos de Venezuela) is reportedly going to London to receive training from Iranian experts on how to improve Venezuela's access to Asian oil markets. Iran, Venezuela's closest partner in OPEC, has long had a cooperative relationship with [China]."
The lynchpin of Chávez's economic strategy is to sell an increasing share of his nation's oil to customers other than the United States, thereby decreasing his revolution's dependence on American cash. Here, Iranian assistance (as well as Chinese and Russian assistance) is vital. Chávez has openly explained the importance of this strategy. The Congressional Research Service report notes that in December 2004, Chávez reportedly "referred to Venezuela's long oil-producing history as '100 years of domination by the United States.'" He further added, "Now we are free, and place this oil at the disposal of the great Chinese fatherland."
While cooperation in the nuclear and economic spheres has been loudly trumpeted by the two nations, the greatest potential threat this alliance poses will most likely remain a less heralded one.
It is no secret that a large portion of the international terror network calls Tehran its master. Hezbollah and similar organizations are either controlled or receive assistance from Tehran. And let us not forget that the mullahs have been, at the very least, willing to shelter many of al Qaeda's most wanted.
Chávez, like his mentor Fidel Castro, is no stranger to terrorism. Venezuela has been a safe haven for Marxist narco-terrorist groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN). A growing body of evidence indicates that support for these groups is the official policy of Chávez's regime. According to the State Department's 2003 Global Patterns of Terrorism, "weapons and ammunition--some from official Venezuelan stocks and facilities--continued flowing from Venezuelan suppliers into the hands of" these organizations.
Both Iran and Venezuela know the value of terrorism as means for waging asymmetric warfare. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to ask: will these two become terror allies as well? Or, more worrisome, are they already?
ALARMINGLY, there are already ominous signs that the answer may be "yes." In May, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service published a collection of quotes from Iranian and Venezuelan media. The FBIS report noted that "Iranian media have reported meetings between Iranian Basij and revolutionary elements on the one hand and Venezuelan officials on the other, as well as plans for Iranian assistance to Venezuelan paramilitary forces." The FBIS report also notes that when he visited Iran last November, Chávez met with the "Imam Khomeyni Aid Committee" which is the "same as Imam Khomeyni Relief Organization, accused by the Iranian opposition sources of being a terrorist arm of the Iranian Regime." The Committee offered its "considerable international experience . . . to Venezuela" including the "training of Venezuelans in Iran." According to the FBIS report, Chávez discussed Venezuela's "Bolivarian paramilitary forces and their national prestige in that country."
Chávez's meeting with the Committee came on the heels of Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Jesus Arnoldo Perez, also paying them a visit. The FBIS report notes that Perez entered into a "signed joint agreement" with the Committee, which "pledged a variety of 'support' initiatives." Among these initiatives was the "training of deprived (downtrodden) and qualified individuals in Venezuela in a variety of areas." This, the report notes, is "common language used in Iran to indicate such activities as paramilitary training."
It would not be surprising, therefore, if Venezuelan forces trained in Tehran's terror tactics become a significant problem in the near future. It is also worth noting that Hezbollah is thought to already have a significant presence among the Lebanese communities on Venezuela's Margarita Island and elsewhere.
All of which raises concerns ranging from America's economic interests to matters of national security. In consolidating his hold on Venezuela and exporting his Bolivarian revolution throughout the region, Hugo Chávez has sought and received assistance from the world's great terror states.
Iran, in turn, now has a powerful ally in the western hemisphere that is willing to facilitate the expansion of its Islamist revolution.
Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.