- Iran and Venezuela have grown closer in recent years, as both countries seek to counter the intense pressure campaign that the US has mounted against them.
- US officials have said that Iran’s military presence in Venezuela is growing and that if Iranian missiles start to arrive in the South American country, then the US could step in.
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US officials have watched warming ties between Iran and Venezuela with concern, expressing alarm over what they say are Iran’s military presence in and arms sales to the South American country.
The Trump administration’s special representative for Iran and Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, is the latest to do so, warning this week that the US would act if Iran sends missiles to Venezuela.
“I’ve made one very concrete statement about this: We will not accept, we will not tolerate, the placement in Venezuela of Iranian missiles that can reach the United States,” Abrams said Thursday during a webinar hosted by George Mason University’s National Security Institute.
“We will not accept it, and if they try to do it, at least in this administration, we will try to interdict it, and if they arrive in Venezuela, they will be dealt with in Venezuela. It is not acceptable to have Iranian missiles in Venezuela that can reach the United States,” Abrams added.
The Trump administration has mounted an intense campaign to isolate Iran, but as it failed to extend an arms embargo on Tehran this fall, the administration and its allies accused Venezuela of supporting Iran’s malign activity.
During the announcement of more sanctions on Iran in late September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of working with Tehran “to flout the UN arms embargo.”
Days later, Sen. Marco Rubio, an influential advisor to Trump on Latin American affairs, said the expiration of that arms embargo in October could lead to Iran “beginning to share weaponry with the Venezuelan military.”
Rubio added that “many options are on the table” to stop such an exchange, including “physical prevention.”
Adm. Craig Faller, who oversees US military operations in the region as head of US Southern Command, expressed similar concerns this week.
“We see growing Iranian influence in [Venezuela] to include the Quds force, which is alarming and concerning, and some weapons ties,” Faller said at a Defense Writers Group event. Quds force is the external arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Faller said the US is concerned about “what we see as the interactions between Iran and Venezuela.”
“It’s not just oil shipments. It’s arms shipments as well,” Faller added. “We have been tracking that. We saw an uptick in that this year. We’re watching the rate of change very carefully to see if it connects to any other Iranian malfeasance around the globe.”
Iran and Venezuela, both founding members of OPEC, have longstanding ties, aligning as foes of the US. More recently, Iran has supported Venezuela with gasoline, which Venezuela now struggles to produce after years of mismanagement and neglect of its oil industry.
The US seized several Iranian tankers headed to Venezuela earlier this year, which drew warnings about retaliation from Iran. Another flotilla of tankers, the largest Iran has sent so far, is now reportedly on its way to Venezuela.
Venezuela has in the past received or made deals for Iranian military hardware, such as small arms or drones, but experts doubt a deal for weaponry like missiles is likely because of Iran’s reticence about escalation and Venezuela’s lack of funds.
“Venezuela has increased military purchases from Iran in recent years, but there’s no evidence Venezuela is seeking any kind of missiles that could reach the Unites States, from Iran or anyone else,” said Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America.
The Trump administration is also seen as unlikely to take military action against Maduro because of the complexity involved and because of Trump’s seeming aversion to large-scale military confrontations.
Asked on Thursday if he was suggesting “a potential Cuban Missile-style crisis” with Iranian missiles in Venezuela, Abrams said no, arguing his comments would help prevent that.
“We’re not going to tolerate it, and I think that making that statement flatly and clearly will serve as an adequate deterrent, and we will never face that,” Abrams said.
President-elect Joe Biden isn’t likely to make a dramatic shift when it comes to dealing with Maduro, but his election, and leadership changes in Congress, suggests there will be a move away from Trump’s hardline approach.
But Abrams, citing his interactions with some Democratic lawmakers, said Thursday that there had been broad agreement on Trump’s handling of the crisis in the South American country.
“Venezuela policy has been remarkably bipartisan in the last four years,” Abrams said. “When [opposition leader] Juan Guaidó was invited to the State of Union … he stood up in the balcony, everybody rose and applauded, and right behind [Trump] was Nancy Pelosi doing it, so it’s been a bipartisan policy.”
Ramsey said the US has “truly hit maximum pressure” on Venezuela and that its “options are limited at this point.”
“The Trump administration has isolated the Maduro regime in every conceivable forum and sanctioned everything in Venezuela except oxygen,” Ramsey told Insider. “At some point the US government is going to have to look at the massive leverage it has given itself in Venezuela and be realistic about what can honestly be achieved toward the goal of advancing a peaceful, democratic solution.”