Iran Establishing a Base of Operations in Venezuela

Is Iran about to consolidate power in America’s backyard?
A worker of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA waves an Iranian flag as the Iranian-flagged oil tanker Fortune docks at the El Palito refinery in Puerto Cabello, in the northern state of Carabobo, Venezuela, on May 25, 2020
AFP/GETTY IMAGES

This week, five tankers full of Iranian gasoline arrived in Venezuela to aid the struggling regime of President Nicolás Maduro. At an estimated worth of $45 million, the imports will provide about a month’s supply of gasoline under strict rationing. The street value of the gasoline will rise to about $450 million as Maduro’s henchmen securing the pumping stations will increase the prices at will.

The arrival of the shipments from Iran breaks two sets of United States sanctions. The Trump administration forbids any company from purchasing Iranian oil products, and it also bars any company from selling oil products to Venezuela. In this case, with two nations under sanctions trading with each other, there is next to nothing America can do to stop the shipments—outside a naval blockade.

Though Venezuela sits on the largest oil reserves on the planet, years of Communist rule and mismanagement have severely impacted its capacity to refine that oil into usable forms such as petrol or gasoline. The petrol shipments are an attempt to temporarily tide the regime over until Venezuelan refineries are fixed. Here too, Iran is helping.

Last month, over a dozen flights were made from Iran to Venezuela by Mahan Air, Iran’s national carrier that is currently sanctioned by the U.S. for transporting Iranian weapons and operatives abroad. The flights were transporting Iranian technicians and the necessary parts to bring Venezuelan refineries back online. The impact of Iran’s help was immediately felt as Venezuela’s refining capacity increased from 110,000 barrels per day to about 215,000 barrels per day in May.

According to information gained by Caracas Capital Markets, which monitors the energy sector in Venezuela, Maduro’s government appears to have paid for those spare parts with gold from its central bank. “We track central bank reserves every month,” Caracas Capital Markets partner Russ Dallen told the Washington Post. “They suddenly went down from April to May by $700 million.”

U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliot Abrams confirmed the transaction, saying, “Those planes that are coming in from Iran that are bringing things for the oil industry are returning with payments for those things: gold.” All totaled, nine tons of gold, equal to about $500 million, were transported to Iran at the end of April on Mahan Air jets, stated U.S. officials.

In response to Iranian tankers steaming across the Atlantic, the U.S. deployed four warships as well as patrol aircraft to the Caribbean. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to the U.S. movement by giving a “serious warning” to the United States through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, not to interfere with the fuel shipment. On May 18, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, said that the U.S. “will have to suffer the repercussions that arise out of any unthinking measure it could take against the Iranian vessels.” The U.S. decided not to intervene and allowed the five tankers to pass through the Caribbean, arriving into Venezuelan waters by Friday.

More Than Oil

The United States’ failure to respond to the tankers is unsurprising given that the oil will buy Maduro’s regime only a little more time. The real concern, however, is that the shipments and flights symbolize an Iranian push into the Western Hemisphere that could become a threat to the U.S.

According to Western intelligence agencies, the Mahan Air flights to Venezuela weren’t just taking spare parts, but also Iranian security officials to help organize Maduro’s internal crackdown on dissent, theTimes.co.uk reported.

The U.S. has confirmed the increased Iranian presence in Venezuela. Last week, Commander of the United States Southern Command Adm. Craig Fuller said he believed Iran’s objective was to “gain an advantage in our neighborhood in a way that would counter U.S. interests.” He continued, “We have seen an uptick in Iranian state-sponsored activity and liaison with Venezuela that has included the Quds Force,” referring to Iran’s elite military unit that was headed by the now deceased Gen. Qassem Suleimani.

Officials from Maduro’s opposition also warn that Iran could be using the cover of supporting the oil industry to provide materials for the construction of a listening post in northern Venezuela that will be used to intercept aerial and maritime communications, reported the Washington Post last week. “For Iran, an enemy of the United States, this means they are almost touching America’s tail,” said the security commissioner for Venezuela’s opposition.

Indeed, while Iran certainly needs the cash (or gold in this case) from trade with Venezuela, it has a larger goal to cement a dominating presence inside Venezuela.

Ties between the two countries have been warm for decades. In 2005, former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez signed a free-trade agreement with former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami valued at $1 billion. Relations warmed further when firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replaced Khatami as Iran’s president. During his time in office, the nations signed over 270 accords, including trade deals in the banking, construction, energy and automobile industries. They often called each other brothers, with Chávez referring to Ahmadinejad as the “gladiator of anti-imperialist struggles.”

All the while, under the surface, Iran used Venezuela to infiltrate South America with its terrorist wing, and used Venezuela’s cocaine production as a critical source of funding for its terrorist activities around the world.

Obama Cover-up

A couple of years ago, Politico reported on a covert operation led by the Drug Enforcement Agency (dea) dubbed Operation Cassandra. It made public for the first time an immense international program that started with drug production based mainly in Venezuela and ended with $200 million a month sitting in a Lebanese bank. The drug and money laundering scheme was run by key figures within Hezbollah, Iran’s chief proxy based in Lebanon, which has ties all over the world. Because the drug money financed Hezbollah’s military wing, one of the leaders of the Cassandra task force later testified to Congress that it was “the largest material support scheme for terrorism operations” the world had ever seen.

And the ground floor of the operation was the cocaine produced in Venezuela and shipped north to the U.S.

According to dea officials, Hezbollah’s point man within the Chávez, and then Maduro, regimes was Tareck al-Aissami.

Aissami was born in Venezuela to a Lebanese mother and Syrian Druze father. According to confidential documents provided to the New York Times by a former top Venezuelan intelligence official last year, Aissami is a close confidant of Maduro and has been the important facilitator for Iran inside the country.

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In his days as interior minister, he organized for many Hezbollah operatives to enter Venezuela and provided residency permits for them to stay in South America. “Thanks to him,” wrote Emanuele Ottolenghi, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “numerous operatives have likely acquired citizenship and entry into the country and, by way of that, they are now free to travel across the region visa-free.”

Even though the U.S. had intelligence that Aissami was central to Iran’s entrenchment inside Venezuela as early as President Barack Obama’s first term in office, the government did nothing to slow him down.

In fact, the Politico report shows how the Obama administration did all it could to silence the findings of Operation Cassandra, as it would undermine Obama’s chief foreign-policy goal: empower Iran. Josh Meyer wrote for Politico:

When Project Cassandra leaders sought approval for some significant investigations, prosecutions, arrests and financial sanctions, officials at the Justice and Treasury departments delayed, hindered or rejected their requests.

The Justice Department declined requests by Project Cassandra and other authorities to file criminal charges against major players such as Hezbollah’s high-profile envoy to Iran, a Lebanese bank that allegedly laundered billions in alleged drug profits, and a central player in a U.S.-based cell of the Iranian paramilitary Quds force. And the State Department rejected requests to lure high-value targets to countries where they could be arrested.

By the time the nuclear deal was implemented in 2016, all of the team members who worked on Cassandra had transferred and the operation was dead in the water.

The facts were there to make arrests, prosecutions and sanction designations of foreign individuals, but few were made. One of the individuals who would be let off the hook was Aissami, Iran’s point man in Venezuela.

Venezuela: an Iranian Proxy?

The facts of Operation Cassandra were well known to President Donald Trump’s security team from the outset. Incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had his eye on Iran’s entrenchment in South America during the Obama administration. He writes in his 2016 book The Field of Flight that Venezuela formed part of a nexus of “radical Islamists and regimes” that had Iran as its “centerpiece and lynchpin.”

Immediately upon taking office, the Trump administration started to play catch-up on Iran’s entrenchment in Venezuela by sanctioning individuals from the defunct Operation Cassandra. On Feb. 13, 2017, while Flynn was still serving as national security adviser, Aissami was sanctioned under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act with tens of millions of dollars of his assets frozen by the American government.

Despite the designation, Aissami continued to rise in Maduro’s government, becoming the second-most powerful man in Venezuela and potentially rivaling Maduro himself. On March 26 of this year, a $10 million bounty was offered for information that would lead to his arrest. On April 28, just before the tankers left the Iranian ports, Aissami was made oil minister, removing the industry from the Venezuelan National Guard general.

Such critical moves by an Iranian ally at the highest levels of power, at the precise time of Iran’s shipments of petroleum, indicate that something larger is at play. Some are even speculating that we might be witnessing the start of an Iranian push for power inside Venezuela.

Roger Boyes wrote this week for the Times:

Nobody quite knows where this is leading. Maduro’s interest in Hezbollah is clear: It helped secure Iran’s reputation as a state ready to fight abroad to prop up Tehran-friendly tyrants. The survival of the Assad regime is its calling card. But there is also speculation that Iran might be ready to drop Maduro and install in his place the Oil Minister Tareck al-Aissami.

Regardless of whether this is in fact an Iranian push for power in Venezuela or just further evidence of strengthened ties, there is no doubt that Iran is a growing power in America’s backyard. This is a scary proposition.

For decades, Iran has proved very adept in the Middle East at maximizing its power inside weak nations.

Witness Syria, whose President Bashar Assad maintains its differences with the Iranian regime. And yet when Assad’s rule was threatened in 2012 by internal division, he invited Hezbollah and Iranian forces to put down the revolt. Iranian forces then started to routinely use Syrian territory as a launching pad for attacks against Israel, as well as a conduit for arms to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Are we now starting to see a similar change take place in America’s backyard? Is Venezuela about to become a base for future Iranian attacks on the U.S.?

It’s unlikely Iran will start lobbing missiles over into Texas from Venezuela. It’s more probable that Iranian agents will be transported to Venezuela and granted Venezuelan citizenship, making them more difficult to track and able to use that cover to infiltrate the U.S. A 2017 cnn report showed that from 2008 to 2013, 173 Venezuelan passports and ID’s “were issued to individuals from the Middle East, including people connected to the terrorist group Hezbollah.” According to the report, Aissami “took charge of issuing, granting visas, and nationalizing citizens from different countries, especially Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Iranians and Iraqis.”

cnn was tipped on the story by Misael Lopez , a Venezuelan diplomat who worked in the Baghdad Embassy in 2013. On his first day on the job, he was shocked to find that Venezuelan passports were being sold out of his office. A couple of years later, he took it up the line, but no one would listen to him. He finally decided to take the information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2015, because surely the U.S. would be interested in Middle Easterners being given covert identities. cnn wrote:

Eventually, with nowhere else to turn, Lopez contacted an fbi official at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. The two met at a restaurant across the street from the embassy, and the official sent Lopez’s information to fbi headquarters in Washington, D.C., a law enforcement source said. The fbi would not comment about what happened with the information.

For Lopez, it was his final attempt to get something done.

But it was too late.

Shortly thereafter, police showed up at Lopez’s home in Venezuela, saying he was under investigation for revealing confidential documents or secrets.

It’s impossible to know if Obama’s fbi just overlooked the tip-off in 2015. But given the timing, it’s actually likely the fbi deliberately killed the lead, just as the Obama administration killed Operation Cassandra at the same time.

It becomes increasingly obvious that in preparation for and in the continuation of the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. was giving Iran a free pass to run riot throughout the world, including in its own backyard. Meyer wrote in Politico about the shuttering of Operation Cassandra (emphasis added):

As a result, the U.S. government lost insight into not only drug trafficking and other criminal activity worldwide, but also into Hezbollah’s illicit conspiracies with top officials in the Iranian, Syrian, Venezuelan and Russian governments—all the way up to presidents Nicolás Maduro, Assad and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, according to former task force members and other current and former U.S. officials.

The Obama administration had the intelligence to bust Iran’s growing position in Venezuela 10 years ago but refused to do it.

This was the incomprehensible cost of Obama’s nuclear pact with Iran that is only now coming to light.

These revelations as well as Iran’s growing power inside Venezuela further prove Watch Jerusalem editor in chief Gerald Flurry’s assessment that the nuclear deal was “The Worst Foreign-Policy Blunder in American History.” Watch Jerusalem executive editor Stephen Flurry wrote in 2017, “These were not just foolish political calculations. They were dangerous and delusional—and they led America and the world down a path of destruction.”

Then he wrote, “The deadly ramifications of what the Obama administration did are beyond measuring and could take years to fully play out.”

As Iran sets up its base in America’s backyard, that forecast has proved accurate. Iran’s movements in South America, under cover of the Obama administration, underscore the damage President Obama did through the Iran nuclear deal. As Mr. Stephen Flurry wrote, this is a truth that can only be fully appreciated by understanding the spiritual dimension explained in the booklet America Under Attack.

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