Iran-Venezuela Links Examined Amid Fresh Calls for Terror-Sponsor Designation

Patrick Goodenough | February 2, 2012 | 2:40am EST
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, shakes hands with his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez during an official welcoming ceremony for him in Tehran on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

( – U.S. lawmakers will turn a spotlight Thursday on the deepening links between Iran and leftist regimes in Latin America, at a meeting that will likely hear fresh calls for the administration to designate Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Three weeks after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing entitled “Ahmadinejad’s Tour of Tyrants and Iran’s Agenda in the Western Hemisphere.”

“Iran has been actively working for years to expand its ties and influence in the Western Hemisphere, and it has found willing partners in the region’s anti-American despots,” committee chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in an earlier statement.

The panel aims to review steps the U.S. should take to advance American interests and counter Iran’s activities in the region.

Among experts scheduled to testify is Institute for Global Economic Growth president Norman Bailey, who formerly served on the National Security Council and in the Office of the Director of Na­tional Intelligence, where he was appointed in November 2006 as “mission manager” for Cuba and Venezuela.

In a briefing paper published by the American Foreign Policy Council on Wednesday, Bailey explored the Hugo Chavez regime’s “facilitation and encouragement of the penetration of the Western Hemisphere by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

“Since 2005, with Venezuela’s assistance, Iran has created an extensive regional network of economic, diplomatic, industrial and commercial activities, with significant effect,” he wrote, noting that Iran’s interests have extended to other Latin American countries, especially the leftist-governed Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets with his Nicaraguan counterpart, Daniel Ortega, in Managua on Wednesday, January 11, 2012. (Photo: Iranian presidency)

Bailey noted that although the Iran-Venezuela partnership had caught the attention of U.S. policymakers in recent years, “little by way of concrete responses has emerged to counter the ex­tensive web of illicit activity and strategic connections that Iran has made in Ven­ezuela and throughout Latin America.”

Among his recommendations – designation of Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism, for its collusion both with Iran and the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist group, Hezbollah.

Bailey said designation would potentially result in a boycott of Venezuelan oil to the U.S., but argued that the oil shipments “could easily be made up with equivalent amounts re­leased from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.”

“By contrast, such a move would have a much more pronounced impact on the Venezuelan economy.”

Links to foreign terrorist organizations

The U.S. currently lists Cuba, Syria, Iran and Sudan as state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that carries sanctions including a ban on arms-related exports and sales, controls over exports of dual-use items, prohibitions on economic assistance, and various financial restrictions.

Designation requires a determination by the secretary of state that a country’s government “has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” for example through support for and links to “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTOs).

In its most recent annual report on international terrorism, published last August, the State Department in its section on state sponsors cites Cuba’s links with the Basque separatist group ETA and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – both FTOs – as well as Iranian and Syrian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Palestinian FTOs including Hamas.

Yet Venezuela’s links to Hezbollah are well-documented (as early as June 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department charged that Chavez’ government was “employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers”) and he has also been accused of ties to FARC and to ETA.

Caracas’ cozy relationship with state sponsors of terror Cuba and Iran – including new concerns that Chavez could help Tehran to evade the latest Western sanctions against its banks and oil exports – provide further reason, proponents say, for Venezuela itself to be designated.

Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, has for several years sponsored legislation urging action.

The most recent bill, introduced in May 2011, calls for “Venezuela to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).” Mack introduced similar bills in October 2009 and in March 2008.

In a white paper on the subject last summer, Mack argued that terror-sponsor designation was not aimed at harming Venezuela’s people but to pressure Chavez’ government to end support for terrorism.

“Each SST [state sponsor of terrorism] is treated with a unique set of sanctions, and the designation does not prevent travel to and from Venezuela, stop legal remittances to Venezuelan families, or impact services at the US embassy.”

Mack said designation could target Venezuela’s oil exports, affecting more than 33 percent of the government’s revenues.

“Venezuelan oil profits have not benefited the Venezuelan people for years: crime is out of control, social infrastructure is destroyed, and health and education are ruined,” the paper said. “Oil in Venezuela is used as a weapon against the people and against other, friendly countries in the region.”

According to U.S. Energy Information Administration figures for crude oil imports into the U.S., Venezuela last September accounted for around 760,000 barrels a day. By comparison, the U.S. imported 2.3 million barrels a day from Canada, 1,5 million from Saudi Arabia and 1.1 million from Mexico.

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