By Ximena Herrera
March 27, 2021
It is a rarity in Venezuela to see the Catholic Church involving itself in politics. But back in November 2020, Monsignor Mario Moronta, a well-respected bishop of San Cristobal and first vice-president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, did just that. “Iran,” he publicly stated, “places its bases of operations in Venezuela without any resistance.”
Monsignor Moronta had been close to the late former president Hugo Chávez. Nowadays, he is despised by the government and its followers for using his position as a senior religious figure to strongly criticize the regime.
A less controversial figure is Carlos Paparoni, who heads the interim Venezuelan parliament’s Finance Commission, and is part of its office against terrorism and money-laundering. In his view, Iran’s gradual encroachment into Venezuela’s military and economic spheres risks the Caribbean country becoming “a beach for the international policy of Iran in the Western Hemisphere”.
The History of the Venezuela-Iran Relationship
Ties between the Venezuelan and Iranian governments go back more than half a century. In 1960, both were founding members of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Organisation (OPEC in Spanish) and co-chaired its first meeting.
At that time, curious though it may now seem, both were also allies of the United States. The Pahlavi dynasty maintained a pro-Western, modernizing stance, while Venezuela was just emerging from the Marcos Perez Jiménez dictatorship. One of the first steps this new democracy had taken was to establish a political and military relationship with the United States.
In 2005, by which point political sea-changes in both Venezuela and Iran had turned the US into a sworn enemy, the two countries re-established their own common ties under the leadership of Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chávez. Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela three times, and Chávez embarked on nine visits to Iran.
Every trip was accompanied with the signing of a new treaty. Iran has gone on to become Venezuela’s principal ally in sanctions evasion, from crude oil shipments to weapons, to the Iranian-owned Megasis supermarket chain.
Bishop Weighs in on Iran’s Creeping Influence
“Our main objective is commercial,” Issa Rezaei, Iran’s vice-minister of industry, has said on Venezuelan TV of the relationship between the two countries. But as many analysts – and latterly, Monsignor Moronta of the Catholic church – have pointed out, the roots run deeper than that.
In November 2020, Moronta penned an excoriating open letter in which he warned of “the process of Islamization in Venezuela”. “Having military rulers in Latin America is important to the Iranians,” he said, “and they have achieved it in Venezuela.”
He went on to describe the presence of Iranian regime figures in Venezuela as “excessive”, calling it an issue that “no one dares to talk about” but that required urgent action. “Far from what many think,” he added, “the Iranians are not as interested in Venezuelan resources as other nations.
“It is not a question of receiving oil or sharing uranium. Let’s not be naive. Their presence has a geopolitical objective: to achieve penetration in a privileged place in Latin America. And they did it without much effort, and [facing] little resistance”.
Venezuelan Official: Iran has Proxies in South America
Carlos Paparoni is a deputy in the National Assembly for the state of Merida and President of the interim Venezuelan parliament’s Finance Commission. He is also the presidential commissioner against terrorism, organized crime and money laundering.
In an interview with IranWire, he confirmed that the relationship between Iran and Venezuela is much more complex than much of the Venezuelan public imagines. “Iran not only has international relations as a nation,” he says, “but also influential groups that end up being, in my opinion, its representatives – specifically, groups like Hezbollah.”
Since 2010, Venezuela and Iran have signed various agreements leading to increased movement between the two countries. In 2019, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards-linked airline Mahan Air, which is sanctioned by the United States for transporting Iranian weapons abroad, launched a series of new direct flights to Venezuela. These flights, it was officially reported at the time, were carrying technicians and parts needed to get Venezuelan refineries running.
But the planes returned with their weight in gold – quite literally, gold stolen from the Venezuelan mining arc. “The gold that Nicolás Maduro delivered violates several laws,” Paparoni says, “including the mining arc protection law that was sanctioned in 2012 and had been proposed by Nicolás Maduro himself, who was an MP at the time.”
The fresh ties between the two countries were not limited to Mahan Air’s ventures. Both states have allowed the creation of joint enterprises in the Caribbean country such as Veniran Tractor – a tractor factory in Bolívar state – and Minerven, which together with its Iranian counterpart Impasco grants Iran concessions to a goldmine in the same state. A joint agreement has also been drawn up between oil companies Petróleos de Venezuela and PetroPars to certificate the reserves of a block of the Orinoco oil belt, located in the Anzoátegui state.
“The balance of payment in favour of Iran in this trade relationship,” says Paparoni, “is about 4 billion dollars, newly in place since the Chavez presidency.
“But there are also military agreements. Venezuela has not only acquired short-range and high-range Iranian weapons, but military projects that have been assigned on national security [grounds].” Little is known about these agreements, but one example Paparoni cites is the Iranian Mohajer-2 drone, which was recently passed off Nicolas Maduro as being Venezuelan.
Meanwhile, Paparoni says, Venezuela has become a favourite spot for the Iranian regime to launder its money. Since 2014, he says, about 500 million euros’ worth of dirty money has found its way into Venezuela in cash.
Uranium: A Murky Business
A key issue now worrying the international community is the sale of uranium from Venezuela to Iran. A recent report by the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted that Iran had more than 2,400 kilograms of enriched uranium at its disposal by November 2020, while the limit that had been established under the JCPOA was 300kg.
The Venezuelan mining arc undertakes significant enrichment of metals such as uranium and selenium, which are often used to manufacture military implements, and Iran has a known interest in Venezuela’s uranium enrichment program. “The great risk,” says Paparoni, “is that Nicolas Maduro is desperate enough to stay in power that he might well be yielding to this type of interest.”
The Venezuelan opposition has also repeatedly denounced the use of Iranian resources to increase repression inside the country. Members of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force have a presence in Venezuela and are thought to be responsible for training local members of Hezbollah. “Our fear,” says Paparoni, “is not only the collaboration that may exist in intelligence areas but also the participation in our military establishment. When we see Iranian missiles and technology within the Venezuela defence systems, we naturally worry that they will not only be used for defence but will also allow Iran to destabilize the region.”
Venezuela, a Focal Point for Iranian State-Sponsored Terrorism
In 2013, as part of the investigation into the 1994 attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman denounced Iran’s infiltration in Argentina and explained in detail how Hezbollah had expanded its networks in that country.
In this investigation, Nisman demonstrated how Iran had used embassies and diplomatic immunity as cover for the crimes committed, and as an “ideal channel for the transmission of information of interest”. Mosques serving local communities, meanwhile, had been pressed into service as recruitment bases.
Iran used precisely the same infiltration structure in Venezuela. In 2004, the then-diplomatic representative of Venezuela in Iran, Ghazi Nassereddine, requested that Venezuelan citizenship be conferred on more than 10,430 people born in Iran, Lebanon and Syria.
Then in 2008, the government’s anti-terrorism commission identified a citizen with a Venezuelan passport with explosives in his luggage, trying to board a plane from an island in the Caribbean to France. In December that same year, Turkish authorities impounded an Iranian vessel bound for Venezuela after discovering equipment capable of producing explosives packed inside 22 containers marked “tractor parts.”
“Venezuela has not only become a harbourer of terrorists,” Paparoni says, “but increasingly dependent on Iran. The grave risk is that Venezuela becomes a beach for the international policy of Iran in the Western Hemisphere.”