Venezuelan President Hugo
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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