In 2012, the Presidents of Venezuela and Iran met at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas. The bromance between Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alarmed Washington, since Venezuela and Iran were (and still are) sworn enemies of the U.S. So Chávez had fun joking that Ahmadinejad had come to help him “fire large missiles” at America.
That remark may have sounded merely mischievous back then. But not today. Not with the U.S. and Iran actually trading missile fire this month and raising fears of a larger military conflict.
Iran’s presence in Venezuela – in the U.S.’s own hemispheric neighborhood – is suddenly a darker subject.
“I don’t like to be alarmist,” says Ilene Prusher, a former Middle East correspondent and Jerusalem bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor. “I do, however, think it’s something that we should be watching very closely, that people should be concerned about.”
Prusher, who now teaches journalism at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, has covered Iran. And she knows a lot about its efforts to confront the U.S. by exporting its Shiite Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East and the world.
“We’ve seen their interest in developing a kind of foothold in the western hemisphere by developing allies in Latin America,” she says. “Particularly Venezuela.”
And, Prusher adds, Iran has just as keen an interest in getting Iranian operatives embedded inside those allies’ territories. Most importantly:
“Having Hezbollah infrastructure in South America.”
Hezbollah is the Shiite militia and political party, based in Lebanon, which Iran has sponsored for decades. Critics – including the U.S., which has designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization – say it’s notorious for doing Iran’s dirty work in spots as far-flung as Argentina.
“Hezbollah,” Prusher notes, “was involved in the attack on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.”
That 1994 terrorist bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building killed 85 people. Iran and Hezbollah deny involvement, but Argentine prosecutors have determined evidence points to them. And that South American attack is a big reason the U.S. is worried about reports of Iran-supported Hezbollah cells in Venezuela.
“Iran realizes it’s really not, of course, a match for the U.S. military,” Prusher notes. But if it were go to war with the U.S. “it can fight in a sort of asymmetrical playing field using proxy militias, cyber-warfare and sometimes terrorist attacks.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently voiced that concern on Fox News: “Venezuela could very much become a risk to the U.S.,” he said. “The Iranians, Hezbollah are there. This is something that has a risk of getting to a very, very bad place.”
Many analysts agree with at least the first part of Pompeo’s assessment – that “they’re there. We’re certain they’re there,” says Brian Fonseca, who heads the Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University.
Fonseca, a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. military’s Southern Command (Southcom) based in Doral, says there’s ample evidence of Iran and Hezbollah’s “footprints” in Venezuela. He points to credible reports Venezuela has issued passports to Iranian operatives – and notes another compelling red flag:
“The mystery flight. The ‘ghost’ flight.”
According to intelligence, in the late 2000s Venezuela’s state-run airline Conviasa started making unannounced but regular flights between Caracas and Tehran (often with a stop in Syria, another major Iranian ally).
“You never had a clear manifest,” says Fonseca. “The plane was always full, yet there was no record of anyone traveling on it. And it’s quite possible that they were able to move people into Venezuela who could disappear if they needed to. So Hezbollah can maneuver in Venezuela and through Venezuela.”
Weapons and drugs were believed onboard those flights too. The U.S. recently indicted former Venezuelan Vice-President Tarek El Aissami for drug trafficking – and he is allegedly tied to Hezbollah.
Fonseca says the big question, then, is what Iran and Hezbollah are actually doing in Venezuela – and what they might do if the U.S. and Iran go to war.
“We don’t know what they’re capable of; we don’t know what they’re targeting,” he says. “But you can attack American interests. The soft targets: people, infrastructure, the whole totality of the American presence in the region. And you’re going to see political pressure on Washington to fix that.”
But Fonseca and Prusher don’t think Americans, for now, should lose too much sleep over Iran’s “footprint” in Venezuela and South America. Fonseca doesn’t think Hezbollah has terrorist training camps there, for example, as some, more hawkish analysts have claimed; or that it’s linked with guerrillas like Colombia’s FARC.
He stresses that unless the U.S. and Iran do go to war, “I don’t think the average person traveling to Latin America should be overly concerned.”
And fortunately, a U.S.-Iran war looks less likely now than it did a week ago.