Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez admitted last week that his government is "carrying out the first studies" of a nuclear program. He attempted to portray it as an innocuous program designed solely for peaceful purposes.
On Sept. 21, I held a briefing for journalists and regional experts where I revealed for the first time information about Chavez's nuclear program and his troubling and substantial collaboration with Iran. This research -- conducted during the past 12 months by a team of experts who analyzed sensitive material obtained from sources within the Venezuelan regime -- paints a far darker picture of Chavez's intentions.
Chávez has been developing the program for two years with the collaboration of Iran, a nuclear rogue state. In addition to showing the two states' cooperation on nuclear research, these documents suggest that Venezuela is helping Iran obtain uranium and evade international sanctions, all steps that are apparent violations of the U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to forestall Iran's illegal nuclear weapons program.
Chávez's suggestion that he is merely studying the idea of a nuclear energy program is misleading. In fact, in November 2008, Iranian and Venezuelan officials signed a secret "science and technology" agreement formalizing cooperation "in the field of nuclear technology." (The text of the agreement, available in Farsi and Spanish, is available here.) The week after the agreement was signed, Venezuela's Ministry of Energy and Petroleum prepared a presentation for the International Atomic Energy Agency documenting the establishment of a "nuclear power programme" in Venezuela. That presentation, obtained from sources within the Venezuelan government, reveals that an "Atomic Energy Committee" has been managing the nuclear program since 2007.
All countries have the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Venezuela is a signatory. However, Chávez's decision to rely on one of the world's worst proliferators to help develop his country's capabilities in this sensitive technology sets alarm bells ringing. And his recent public declarations understating the nature of his nuclear program raise more questions than they answer.
It's not only Venezuela's cooperation with Iran on its own nuclear program that raises questions -- other documents provided by sources within the Venezuelan government reveal a suspicious network of Iranian-run facilities in that South American country that could contravene Security Council sanctions.
For example, a November 2008 contract between a Venezuelan state-run firm, CVG Minerven, and the Iranian government firm Impasco grants the Iranians a "gold mine" concession in the heart of the Roraima basin in the southeastern state of Bolivar, which sits along the Venezuela-Guyana border. Although gold mining in Venezuela goes back decades, the basin is also home to one of the world's largest deposits of uranium, according to a survey by the U308 Corp., a Canadian uranium exploration company.
There is nothing illegal about the commercial mining of uranium -- unless it is conducted by Iran. Security Council Resolution 1929, passed this June after an aggressive diplomatic effort by the United States, ordered all governments to prohibit any Iranian involvement in "uranium mining, production or use of nuclear materials and technology." If Iran's Impasco has struck gold in Venezuela, that is nobody's business. If it is mining uranium, that is quite a different matter.
In addition to acquiring a mine strategically located above substantial uranium deposits, Iranian firms have taken over nearby industrial facilities and seem to be using them for purposes other than those publicly stated. For example, a "cement plant" produces little if any cement, a "tractor factory" produces few tractors, and both facilities are well situated for supporting Iran's shadowy activities in an area that is far from everything but uranium.