In today’s WSJ,
The Tehran-Caracas Nuclear Axis
But perhaps the most interesting Iranian venture is a supposed gold mine not far from Angel Falls, in a remote area known as the Roraima Basin. The basin straddles Venezuela’s border with neighboring Guyana, where a Canadian company, U308, thinks it has found the “geological look-alike” to Canada’s Athabasca Basin. The Athabasca, the company’s Web site adds, “is the world’s largest resource of uranium.”
In 2006, Chávez publicly mocked suspicions of nuclear cooperation with Iran, saying it “shows they have no limit in their capacity to invent lies.” In September, however, Rodolfo Sanz, Venezuela’s minister of basic industries, acknowledged that “Iran is helping us with geophysical aerial probes and geochemical analyses” in its search for uranium.
The official basis for this cooperation seems to be a Nov. 14, 2008 memorandum of understanding signed by the two countries’ ministers of science and technology and given to me by a credible foreign intelligence source. “The two parties agreed to cooperate in the field of nuclear technology,” reads the Spanish version of the document, which also makes mention of the “peaceful use of alternative energies.” Days later, the Venezuelan government submitted a paper to the International Atomic Energy Agency on the “Introduction of a Nuclear Power Programme.” (Online readers can see the memorandum for themselves in their Farsi and Spanish versions. One mystery: The Farsi version makes no mention of nuclear cooperation.)
Iran would certainly require large and reliable supplies of uranium if it is going to enrich the nuclear fuel in 10 separate plants—an ambition Ahmadinejad spelled out last month. It would also require an extensive financial and logistical infrastructure network in Venezuela, not to mention unusually good political connections. All this it has in spades.
Consider financing. In January 2008, the Bank of International Development opened its doors for business in Caracas. At the top of its list of its directors, all of whom are Iranian, is one Tahmasb Mazaheri, former governor of the central bank of Iran. As it turns out, the bank is a subsidiary of the Export Development Bank of Iran, which in October 2008 was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for providing “financial services to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics.”
Or consider logistics. For nearly three years, Venezuelan airline ConViasa has been flying an Airbus 340 to Damascus and Tehran. Neither city is a typical Venezuelan tourist destination, to say the least. What goes into the cargo hold of that big plane is an interesting question. Also interesting is that in October 2008 the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, also sanctioned by Treasury, announced it had established a direct shipping route to Venezuela.
Finally, there are the political connections. What do Fadi Kabboul, Aref Richany Jimenez, Radwan Sabbagh and Tarek Zaidan El Aissami Maddah have in common? The answer is that they are, respectively, executive director for planning of Venezuelan oil company PdVSA; the president of Venezuela’s military-industrial complex; the president of a major state-owned mining concern; and, finally, the minister of interior. Latin Americans of Middle Eastern descent have long played prominent roles in national politics and business. But these are all fingertip positions in what gives the Iranian-Venezuelan relationship its worrying grip.
By the way, I have been posting on the Venezuelan-Iranian ties since at least 2007. None of this should take regular readers of this blog by surprise.
The Carnival of Latin America and the Caribbean will be up later today. My apologies for the delay.