WASHINGTONBeing a buffoon can buy a lot of time in international politicsyou can do naughty things for a long while before people begin to take them seriously. This is the case of Venezuelas Hugo Chavez, whose relationship with Iran was the subject of a recent presentation by Robert Morgenthau, the legendary Manhattan district attorney.
Based on his offices investigations, third-party collaboration and snippets of public information, Morgenthau concludes that Venezuela and Iran are acting together in our backyard on the development of nuclear and missile technology.
The news is not really new. For instance, a small group of private investigators came to my office a few months ago and showed me numerous documents and photographs that pointed to many of the things the Manhattan DA now confirms. They complained that they had visited authorities in the U.S. and other countries but had received very little support in their effort to put the spotlight on what Chavez is up to.
Regardless of how one thinks liberal democracies should respond to Irans development of nuclear weapons, Chavezs involvement has unsavory implications for the Western Hemisphere. Should the Tehran-Caracas relationship evolve into a nuclear Venezuela, or a Venezuela acting as a nuclear base for Iran, Caracas ability to destabilize neighboring countries that are resisting Chavezs attempts to subvert them would be exponentially augmented. Not an edifying prospect for those of us who would rather see Chavez and the line of populist tyrants from which he descends relegated to horror museums.
The new relationship between Iran and Venezuela started in 2006. If we brush aside the rhetorical declarations of mutual love, we are left with three hard facts, all of which emanate from the military, political and economic accords signed by Caracas and Tehran.
First, Iran has set up financial institutionssuch as the Banco Internacional de Desarrolloin Venezuela ostensibly for development purposes. But since Iran is in no position to lavish on other countries the development it has failed to bring to its own people, investigators believe the real intention is to bypass sanctions that bar Tehran from using the banking institutions of the United States for payments related to its nuclear program. Second, in the past three years a series of factories owned by Iran have been established in remote locations inside Venezuela, including an area containing up to 50,000 tons of uranium. Third, last December, Turkey intercepted an Iranian ship bound for Venezuela with equipment capable of producing explosives; it was hidden in 22 containers labeled tractor parts.
These are not the only substantial elements in the relationship between Venezuela and the Middle East at large. Another one is Ghazi Nasr al Din, a Venezuelan of Lebanese origin barred by the U.S. Treasury from transacting any business in the United States because of his terrorist connections. Morgenthau believes he is working under a different name at the Venezuelan embassy in Lebanon.
Bypassing international sanctions in order to continue making payments to its suppliers has long been an Iranian obsession. Since most wire transfers made in dollars are cleared by U.S. banks acting as intermediariesregardless of their origin and final destinationIran needs at least indirect access to banks in New York. While Irans development bank in Caracas is on the U.S. blacklist because it is a subsidiary of a larger Iranian institution, Venezuelas banks can transact business in the U.S. legally. Iran can therefore use any Venezuelan financial institution with which its Caracas-based bank has a relationship to make transfers that will sail through the U.S. banking system. All this happens under the nose of U.S. authorities who think their sanctions are effective. Meanwhile, these authorities spend time pressuring other nations to do away with bank secrecy in order to catch U.S. tax evaders.
Not since 1962 has Latin America been drawn directly by an outside power into the nuclear chess game. The Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs developed in the 1970s and 1980s (Mexicos never went past the preliminary phase) were entirely homegrown affairs, unrelated to the interests of outside powers. Venezuela, whose anti-imperialist government has announced a nuclear program of its own, is busy bringing Latin America back to the good old days of subservience to anti-imperialist foreign powers.