Joseph M. Humire, an expert on transregional threats in the Americas and the executive director of national security think tank Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), describes the prolonged presence of Iran in Venezuela as a “pattern of penetration.” This presence, according to Humire, established a modus operandi of Iran’s regional activities that, when analyzed, illustrates a multi-dimensional, multi-phased effort of almost 40 years. “Some analysts believed that the passing of [Hugo] Chávez would bring about an abrupt end to Iran’s foray into Latin America. Nine years later, this has not happened as Iran has engaged in a systematic, long-term approach to build and sustain a strategic presence in Latin America,” says Humire.
Iran’s malign presence in Venezuela is clear. In early February, an Iranian oil tanker, the Starla, docked in the South American country to deliver two million barrels of condensate, the National Review magazine reported on February 4. The Starla belongs to the National Iranian Oil Company, which is sanctioned due to its support for the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force. The deal is part of a long line of illicit trade between the two nations. Iran has been selling condensate to Venezuela in exchange for crude oil, allowing both nations to keep their heavily sanctioned energy sectors afloat, the National Review added.
Countries under tougher U.S. sanctions, including Iran and Venezuela, have responded to the mounting pressure with elaborate strategies to circumvent restrictions on their oil exports, Reuters reported in January. Iran views U.S. sanctions as illegal and has said it will make every effort to sidestep them. “There is strong will in Iran to increase oil exports despite the unjust and illegal U.S. sanctions,” Iran’s Oil Minister Javad Owji told the country’s state TV in September 2021, Reuters reported.
Cultural and religious penetration
Humire explains that, at the strategic level, Iran’s penetration in the region involves a gradual transition from an informal presence to a formal one, while simultaneously and systematically growing its military activity. “During the 1980s, Iran initiated this strategy through covert presence in a handful of Latin American countries under the guise of commercial and cultural exchanges. This cultural and religious penetration allowed Iran, as well as Hezbollah, to embed itself within the small, but relevant Shiite Islamic populations in targeted countries. More importantly, it established an infrastructure through which Iran could insert spies and other subversive actors into the region, operatives who in the years since have built intelligence networks throughout Latin America.”
At the turn of the century, the rise of Chávez and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) bloc prompted a metamorphosis of Iran’s covert presence into a more formal diplomatic and economic presence, with the Iranian regime more than doubling its embassies in Latin America and establishing lines of credit with a half-dozen countries in the region, Humire said.
Technical assistance from Russia and Iran
Iran’s tentacles in countries such as Venezuela keep reaching further. During a January anti-drug conference held in Cartagena, Colombia’s Defense Minister Diego Molano claimed foreign interference by Iran and Russia is at play in South America. Molano, citing intelligence sources, said troop movements were registered in Venezuela opposite Colombia’s Arauca province. “Venezuela is moving troops to the border with Colombia with technical assistance from Russia and Iran,” Molano said.
After Chávez’s break with the United States and Washington’s ban on arms sale to Venezuela in 2007, Caracas found a new supplier in Russia. According to the think tank International Crisis Group, the Venezuelan government has since purchased Russian weapons worth more than $4 billion, and cooperation with Russia, despite Venezuela’s economic collapse, has continued ever since. “I don’t think Maduro has any interest in increasing tension with the United States at this point,” Phil Gunson, a Crisis Group analyst said to German news site DW. Yet following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the near future is uncertain.