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The Trump Administration has made no secret that one of its foreign policy priorities was Iran. It cancelled what President Trump called the worst deal the U.S. ever made, the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. It also implemented crippling sanctions on Tehran and acted militarily by killing in January 2020 the de facto Number 2 of the regime, the terror master Qassem Soleimani.
Another country that has been in the eye of Washington is Venezuela and it’s not by chance that Iran and Venezuela have expanded their already close relationship.
There are large Syrian and Lebanese diaspora communities in Venezuela which serve as valuable sources of revenue and offer support to Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. Hezbollah has had cells in Venezuela since the 1990’s; it controls large swaths of territory in Venezuela; it leads the drug trafficking and illegal gold mining as well; Margarita Island off the Caribbean coast of Venezuela serves as its base of operations where it runs terror training camps and is a major hub for its drug trafficking activities.
In reality, the relationship between Venezuela and Iran blossomed starting in 2005 under President Hugo Chavez who struck a close friendship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that visited him nine times in Venezuela while Chavez went six times to Iran. For proof of this exceptional closeness, not only did Ahmadinejad called Chavez “Mi Hermano” (“My Brother”) but also at Chavez’s funeral Ahmadinejad took in his arms the Venezuelan leader’s mother, something totally forbidden for someone as pious as the Iranian president who is not allowed to touch any woman except for his wife.
In 2007 a weekly Caracas-Damas-Tehran flight was established: interestingly no tourists were allowed and it was allegedly used only to transport cocaine, dirty money and terrorists. The same year, Nicolas Maduro then the Venezuelan Foreign Minister met in Damascus none other than Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah to discuss cooperation. In late 2019, Jorge Arreaza, his successor, also met Hezbollah leaders at the Venezuelan Embassy in Lebanon in Beirut.
Tareck el Aissami is the son of a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother. His father Zaidan El Amin El Aissami is a radical and ardent supporter of Islamic Jihad with strong ties to Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, an Iraqi military commander and leader of the “Iraqi Resistance.”
Tareck has been for years the point man of Tehran and Hezbollah in Venezuela. He was Venezuela’s Interior Minister from 2008 to 2012 and allegedly provided directly 173 new Venezuelan identities to Islamist extremists, mainly Iranian revolutionary guards and Hezbollah operatives. One such individual who received documentation was Suleiman Ghani Abdul Waked, known as a close associate of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.
El Aissami was Vice President from 2017 to 2018 before being appointed to the vital post of Oil Minister in April 2020. He has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury and is on the U.S. Customs Top 10 Most-Wanted. His appointment at such an important post is the sign of the rapprochement with Tehran and Hezbollah.
For proof, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Iran is using its sanctioned oil and energy expertise to garner favor and financial gain from Venezuela. Iran’s opportunistic strategy was quickly implemented through the delivery by Iran of gasoline to Caracas for gold.
The U.S. has been trying to block the tankers coming from Iran for a few weeks already. It has issued a warning to all countries, ports, shipping and insurance companies that they could face severe penalties if they help tankers carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela. Flexing his muscles, Iranian President Rohani warned of retaliatory measures against the U.S. if it interfered with the gasoline transport.
Another sign of this intense rapprochement between Tehran and Caracas is the settling of a large Iranian military-owned conglomerate in Venezuela. Iran has been transferring military technicians to Venezuela along with engineers Tehran sent to help the country restore its broken energy infrastructure.
The U.S. is trying to dramatically disrupt the Hezbollah/Iran nexus in Venezuela. In May 2020, Federal prosecutors in New York accused a former Venezuelan lawmaker of Syrian descent, Adel El Zabayar, of participating in narcoterrorism in an indictment claiming that a cartel headed by government leaders- including President Maduro himself and his number two, Diosdado Cabello- conspired with the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas to commit attacks against the U.S.
Additionally, El-Zabayar also acted as a liaison between the Venezuelan government and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Cherry on the cake: In 2013, El-Zabayar joined Hezbollah forces to fight in the Syrian civil war. Then just three weeks ago, Cape Verde authorities arrested a Colombian businessman of Lebanese origin, Alex Saab, on charges related to money laundering and illegal activities in Venezuela.
Saab who is considered the conduit of the Hezbollah militia in Latin America was allegedly travelling to Iran on a Venezuelan plane and had stopped in Cape Verde to refuel.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just warned that the Iranian regime will become an arms dealer to Venezuela if a 13-year-old arms embargo is allowed to expire. Hezbollah’s standing in Central and South America has recently been negatively impacted by the designation of the Lebanese group as a terror organization not only by Argentina and Paraguay but also by Colombia, Honduras and Guatemala.
In light of this, both Hezbollah and Iran need to cling to Venezuela even more than ever while the U.S. will make sure to fend off the threats emanating from the three allies.