“Iran may have begun providing military equipment to the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela,” says a November 19 report by the Critical Threats Project, an initiative of the Washington D.C.-based think tank American Enterprise Institute, which tracks and analyzes security threats to the United States and partner nations.
The report came on the same day that Maduro announced on state-run television that Venezuela would soon begin the manufacture of drones for national defense. Maduro did not elaborate further but presented two prototypes of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). In 2012, Iran admitted to exporting its UAV technology to Venezuela, including its Mohajer-2 drone, the same type flown by Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, the Jerusalem Post reported at the time.
The Critical Threats Project cites three flights to Venezuela from Qeshm Fars Air, an Iranian airline affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and sanctioned by the United States for shipping weapons to Syria, as potential evidence that Iran could have started providing the Maduro regime with military equipment. The flights started arriving in Venezuela in late October. The Critical Threats Project pointed out, however, that the cargo on those flights was unknown.
“A 747 plane from Qeshm [Fars] Air from Iran has arrived at the airport of Maiquetía [Vargas state]. This plane regularly transports weapons for terrorist groups in the Middle East and is sanctioned by the @UTreasury [U.S. Treasury Department],” said Venezuela’s National Assembly lawmaker José Manuel Olivares on Twitter, when the first aircraft landed on October 27. “They are unloading boxes directly into highly escorted containers.”
On October 26, U.S. Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams warned that the United States would “eliminate” Iranian missiles shipped to Venezuela. “The transfer of long-range missiles from Iran to Venezuela is not acceptable to the United States and will not be tolerated or permitted,” Abrams said. “Iran has announced its intention to engage in arms sales, and Venezuela is an obvious target because those two pariah regimes already have a relationship.”
A 13-year conventional arms embargo on Iran imposed by the United Nations expired on October 18. The end of the embargo means that Iran can now legally buy and sell conventional weapons, including missiles. In August, Maduro suggested that the purchase of Iranian missiles would be a “good idea.”
Another clue that Iran may be providing military equipment to the Maduro regime, according to the Critical Threats Project, is Maduro’s recently formed Scientific and Technological Military Council, that he said will operate with the help and advice of “sister” nations, such as Russia, Cuba, China, and Iran. According to German media DW News, Maduro announced the creation of the council on October 23, citing external threats and “aggressions” to the country.
In a September 28 interview with Radio Farda, the Iranian branch of the U.S. government funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcast service, former IRGC chief commander, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated that Iran is helping Venezuela form a mobilization force. Maj. Gen. Safavi says that the process is “transferring Iran’s experience” to countries like Venezuela that are “standing against the U.S.” Iran’s Popular Mobilization Force is a subdivision of the IRGC that assist special units in suppressing social uprisings.
On November 6, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrapped up a two-day visit to Caracas where he reiterated that both countries would continue “defense cooperation” and added that they were “legally entitled to develop cooperation in this field,” British-based Persian television station Iran International, reported.
“This relationship raises concerns. The role of the Maduro regime in opening the door to threat networks and state actors hostile to the United States is certainly one important reason why this undemocratic and criminal regime has to go”, Evan Ellis, research professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. War College Strategic Studies Institute, told Diálogo.
In an interview with Argentine news site Infobae, Bishop Mario del Valle Moronta Rodríguez, a prominent Venezuelan clergyman, denounced the Maduro regime’s strengthening ties with Iran as, “allowing it to put its operational bases in our country.”
For Francine Jacome, director of the Venezuelan Institute of Social and Political Studies, the strengthening of defense cooperation is beneficial to Iran not only from a geopolitical standpoint.
“Iran also has financial needs; this was demonstrated very clearly with the import of Iranian gasoline [to Venezuela] that was paid for with gold,” she told Diálogo. “That has to be taken into account, the extent to which the current Venezuelan regime would have funds for the acquisition of such weapons.”