Venezuela’s energy sector cooperation with Iran seen as threat to US security?

Philadelphia-based foreign affairs specialist Fred Stakelbeck, Jr. writes: With the exception of Iran’s fiery Islamist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, no other world leader has perfected the role of “US antagonist” better than Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.

With a close group of confidants that includes some the world’s most notorious US bashers such as Cuba’s aging dictator Fidel Castro, Libya’s enigmatic Moammar Gadhafi and Bolivia’s ultra-nationalist Evo Morales — Chavez has quickly become one of the leading spokesman for the global anti-American movement.

During his several turbulent years in office, Chavez has made his feelings concerning the US a matter of public record. “It’s [America] the most perverse, murderous, genocidal, immoral empire that this planet has known in 100 centuries,” Chavez told an audience at this year’s World Social Forum in Caracas. In response, Washington has dubbed Chavez’ anti-American outbursts and repeated threats to spread a “Bolivarian Revolution” throughout Latin America, as the rantings of a desperate leader trying to divert public attention away from failed social and economic policies.

But recent efforts by Chavez to strengthen energy, defense, nuclear and political relations with a belligerent, nuclear obsessed Iran may force Washington to revise its thinking.

In an April speech delivered to supporters in Caracas, Chavez declared, “I had close ties with Mohammad Khatami [Iran’s President from 1997-2005], whom I consider to be like a brother and now I enjoy close ties with his successor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom I also think of as a brother.” Although the statement is not unusual for the perpetually animated and painfully blunt Chavez, it does show the direction in which the relationship is headed.

At the 141st Ministerial Meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) held in Caracas in late May, high-level officials from Iran and Venezuela met to discuss a number of bilateral agreements, most notably, participation by Iranian state oil firm Petropars in oil projects in Venezuela’s underdeveloped Orinoco Belt and gas projects in the Gulf of Venezuela. Both countries are expected to undertake exploration of one of the areas in the Orinoco Belt with the ultimate goal of allowing Petropars to export finished fuel to Iran. Iranian experts are scheduled to arrive in Venezuela soon to support government-sponsored engineering projects.

As Venezuela’s energy relations with Iran have blossomed, its energy relations with the West have soured. Last month, Chavez announced that taxes would be raised on foreign oil companies operating in Venezuela from 16.7% to 33%, calling it a “tax on extraction.” Chavez has accused foreign companies of exploiting his country’s petroleum resources without properly compensating the Venezuelan people.

Despite the tax increase and Chavez’ confrontational stance, Venezuela remains an important energy partner for the US According to statistics released by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), Venezuela ranks fourth in total crude exports (1.2 million barrels per day) and third in total petroleum products exported (1.5 million barrels per day) to the US.

Given America’s continued reliance on Venezuelan oil for its everyday survival and the difficulties associated with securing energy resources from other parts of the world, any involvement by Tehran in Venezuela’s energy sector should be perceived as threat to US national security.

In addition to energy cooperation, military and intelligence relations between Caracas and Tehran have intensified. In May, the US State Department accused Venezuela of having an intelligence-sharing relationship with both Iran and Cuba, two countries which the US has identified as sponsors of terrorism. In its annual report on international terrorism, the US State Department cited Chavez for sharing an “ideological affinity” with two leftist guerrilla groups operating in Columbia — the FARC and the National Liberation Army — both considered terrorist organizations by Washington.

As a result, all arms and spare parts sales to Caracas, which totaled US$33.9 million in 2005, were halted last month. In response, Venezuelan General Alberto Muller Rojas, a senior advisor to Chavez, recommended that his country sell its 21 F-16 fighter jets to Iran. Although the 20 year-old fighter jets are considered nearly obsolete by today’s standards, the proposal aggravated already tense relations between the two countries.

Revelations that Iran and Venezuela have accelerated cooperation in the area of nuclear technology has set off alarms in Washington.

Only five short years ago, a Venezuelan newspaper reported that a secret deal was struck between the two countries that called for Iran to ship missiles to both Venezuela and Cuba aboard oil tankers. At the time, Venezuelan government officials called the report “preposterous” … but the rumors took on new significance in November when Chavez reportedly sought the assistance of Iran to secure nuclear technology.

At approximately the same time, the Argentine newspaper Clarin reported that the Chavez government had asked Buenos Aires to sell it a nuclear reactor. Like the Tehran regime, Caracas officials have acknowledged that discussions took place, but have stated that they involved only ways to explore “the peaceful scientific uses of the atom.”

In a related matter, reports surfaced in late 2005 that Venezuelan uranium deposits were bound for Tehran as part of a $200 million agreement signed between the two countries. Local missionaries claimed new construction had occurred at a small military facility and airstrip close to where uranium deposits are said to be located.

On the political front, Iran and Venezuela share an insatiable hatred of America and continue look for ways to support anti-US alliances throughout the Middle East and Latin America. On an eight-day tour of Latin America last month, Iranian Majiis Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel said the strategic unity forged between the two countries is rooted in a response to “threats by bullying powers such as the US.” Iran and Venezuela have concluded that the best way to accomplish their common objective of US global destabilization is to join forces making any targeted response by Washington much more complex and costly.

With an enthusiastic Iran as his partner, Chavez, a self-styled socialist revolutionary, has awakened the Marxist anti-American ghosts of the past.

The burly leader has become a Latin American “infection” which now requires treatment to sooth the pain and discomfort.

It will be the job of the Bush administration in the coming months to ensure that the “infection” does not spread throughout the Western Hemisphere and to America’s borders.


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