Top US Commander Says Iranian Influence Still Growing In Venezuela
The head of the United States Southern Command Admiral Craig Faller on Wednesday [December 2] told reporters that Iran had sent arms and members of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force (Quds) to Venezuela to help President Nicolas Maduro stay in power.
“We’re seeing growing Iranian influence there,” Admiral Faller, the highest US navy commander for Central and South America, said in a video conference. The US was tracking an “uptick” in arms shipments from Iran to Venezuela, which he said was also receiving aid from Cuba and Russia. The presence of Qods Force soldiers was “alarming and worrying,” he added: “We are really concerned about what Iran is up to, not just globally, but here in this hemisphere.”
The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua – with his former national security advisor John Bolton describing an assertive US approach as the Munro doctrine being “alive and well.” Oliver Stuenkel, of the Fundacao Getulio Vargas School of International Relations, in Sao Paulo, recently argued that Trump had managed to increase Chinese influence and arms sales in Latin America while pushing many countries into “reluctantly” backing Maduro. Others view US pressure as necessary to force Maduro to abide by democratic norms.
Venezuela and Iran have defiantly ignored the US sanctions and continued cooperation. Iran sent several large shipments of fuel and refinery equipment to its fuel-starved Latin American ally this year and even opened a supermarket chain in Caracas to help Maduro tackle the popular anger over fuel and food shortages and anti-government protests.
The material for repairing Venezuela's run-down refineries were transported by Iran's Mahan Air which is under US sanctions. According to Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a top Revolutionary Guards officer and an adviser of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran has received gold bullion as payments for its fuel.
In September, Trump appointed Elliot Abrams, a seasoned neoconservative, as the US Special Representative for both Venezuela and Iran (he had previously been Special Representative just for Venezuela). Also in September, the US State Department sanctioned Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier-General Amir Hatami for his ties to the Maduro regime, in what US officials said was move that would deter arms sales to Venezuela. On October 26 Abrams warned that if Iranian missiles were shipped to Venezuela, they would either be destroyed on route or on the ground once they arrived.
On November 5 during a two-day visit to Venezuela, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif said the two countries had agreed to continue “defense cooperation.” The Iranian media in November reported that with the lifting of the UN arms embargo on Iran, Tehran would be able to export weapons including the homegrown Mohajer-6 drones to Venezuela.