Here's an issue that is drawing growing attention in Washington, but is going almost unnoticed in Latin America — allegations that Venezuela is helping Iran develop nuclear weapons, and that Iran's fundamentalist regime is setting up a foothold in Latin America from where to threaten the United States.
While there has been speculation about Venezuela's ties to Iran's nuclear program in the past, it has risen to a new level since a Sept. 8 speech by New York district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau at the Brookings Institute in Washington.
Morgenthau, who has been Manhattan's top prosecutor for more than three decades, is a legend in U.S. law enforcement and political circles. He led dozens of high-profile investigations against major financial institutions, and is said to have been the model for the character of the Manhattan district attorney in the TV series Law & Order.
In his speech, Morgenthau went as far as hinting that we may be closer than we think to a situation such as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, this time featuring Iranian nuclear facilities in Venezuela. Among his key points:
• Venezuela, which has strong ties to Iran-backed Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist groups, is one of the few countries in the world that votes against United Nations sanctions to force Iran to curtail its nuclear program. In 2007, President Hugo Chávez said during a visit to Iran that the two countries had created an "axis of unity" against the United States. In 2008, Venezuela and Iran signed a deal pledging full military support, and Iran has reportedly sent military advisers to Venezuela.
• Last week, in his eighth official visit to Iran since he took office, Venezuelan Chávez said he is discussing with Iran the creation of a "nuclear village" in Venezuela, claiming that Iran only wants to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Venezuela has an estimated 50,000 tons of un-mined uranium, and may be starting to mine uranium for Iran.
• On the financial front, Iran last year opened the International Development Bank in Caracas (BID), an independent subsidiary of Iran's Export Development Bank (EDBI). The two Iranian banks have been subjected to U.S Treasury Department sanctions for helping the Iranian military buy materials for their nuclear program.
• Over the past three years, Iranian-owned factories have sprung up in remote parts of Venezuela, which "given their location and secretive nature" should be cause for international concern.
"The Iranians have found the perfect ally in Venezuela," Morgenthau said. "Venezuela has an established financial system that, with Chávez's help, can be exploited to avoid economic sanctions. As well, its (Venezuela's) geographic location is ideal for building and storing weapons of mass destruction far away from Middle Eastern states. . .and from the eyes of the international community."
Venezuelan ambassador Bernardo Alvarez responded in a Sept. 11 letter to Morgenthau's office that these allegations are "simply outrageous" and that "it was particularly irresponsible to mention Iranian factories in rural parts of Venezuela, without providing any sort of evidence."
In the U.S. Congress, reactions range vary.
Eliot L. Engel, D-NY, chairman of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, told me in a telephone interview that allegations of Venezuela's aid to Iran's nuclear weapons program "have not been substantiated, but I take them seriously." He added that his subcommittee will hold hearings in late October on "all aspects" of Iran's activities in Latin America.
A well-placed Senate Democratic source told me that Morgenthau's speech did not contain much new information, but that key members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have asked U.S. intelligence agencies to look into the issue.
My opinion: Chávez has a well-established record of publicly denying the undeniable. Against mountains of video, computer files and personal testimonies proving that he has actively helped Colombia's FARC guerrillas and routinely sends bags of cash to his allies in Latin America, he continues to claim that none of these things ever happened, and that they are lies spread by ``the U.S. empire.''
That doesn't mean that Morgenthau has found a smoking gun on the Venezuela-Iran nuclear collaboration.
We will have to wait for more concrete evidence of his claims. But we can't rule out that — in his quest for global notoriety — Chávez's ties with Iran could one day drag all of Latin America into an international crisis.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.