The "cement plant," in fact, processes ore from the Impasco mine, according to sources familiar with the facility. The facility, located in southern Monagas state, was built in 2007 by Edhasse Sanat, a firm owned by Iran's Ministry of Mines. According to eyewitnesses, the plant has yet to produce a bag of cement but, instead, serves as a conduit for moving ore to a port on the Orinoco River, where it is transferred onto Iranian-flagged vessels on the Atlantic Ocean. Once it reaches the open sea, there is nothing to prevent its delivery to Iran.
The "tractor factory" in the state of Bolivar is a second facility that provides Iran a benign cover for its activities in this remote region. Operated since 2006 by a Venezuela-Iran joint venture, the facility produces few tractors and is housed in a military-style compound protected by Venezuelan National Guard troops, according to two eyewitnesses who have visited and videotaped the facility in recent years.
Deep suspicions about the actual purpose of that facility were raised in December 2008 when Turkish customs authorities intercepted a shipment sent from Iran to the "tractor factory" in Venezuela. According to media reports, 22 cargo containers and crates labeled "tractor parts" were found to contain barrels of nitrate and sulfite chemicals -- bomb-making material -- as well as components of what Turkish experts described as an "explosives lab." Moreover, this suspicious cargo was being delivered by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in September 2008 for providing logistical services to Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics.
In addition to providing physical cover for Iranian operations, banks and other purportedly commercial ventures established in Venezuela afford Iran access to the international financial sector in violation of several Security Council resolutions intended to deny funds to the country's illicit nuclear weapons program. Resolution 1803 (2008) warns governments to "exercise vigilance" against Iranian banks, specifically Bank Saderat, "to avoid such activities contributing to the proliferation of sensitive nuclear activities." Documents retrieved from Venezuelan government archives (available in Spanish here) show that by 2007, Iran's Bank Saderat had already incorporated the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo (BID) in Venezuela. All of BID's founding directors are Iranian, and it appears to operate today as a Venezuelan bank that is actually a wholly-owned front for Saderat. Records of Iranian firms operating in Venezuela reflect dollar-denominated transactions carried out by BID in contravention of U.S. law and U.N. resolutions.
The United Nations had good reason to single out Saderat as a possible conduit for funds used to finance terrorism and nuclear proliferation. In 2006, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Saderat for serving as a conduit for funds to the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah. Only two months ago, the European Union froze BID's assets for its role in supporting Iran's "nuclear or ballistic missile activities." Yet Chávez's government continues to allow BID to move money through Iranian front companies and Venezuelan partners in order to evade international sanctions.
Ignoring what Chávez and his friends are up to right under our noses is no longer an option. If the United States and the United Nations are serious about nonproliferation, they must challenge Venezuela and Iran to come clean and, if necessary, take steps to hold both regimes accountable. Unfortunately, U.S. policymakers continue to shy away from issues that might lead to a confrontation with the irascible Chávez. But Venezuela's willingness to flout international law and abet Iran's activities close to U.S. shores is becoming too flagrant -- and ultimately, too dangerous -- to ignore.