Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Post Chavez: Venezuela, Iran, and the U.S. - Guest Commentary

Upon landing in Caracas yesterday for Hugo Chavez’s funeral, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed, "Iran and Venezuela are two brother peoples and will be united forever." While "forever" might be a stretch, the countries share a way-too-cozy relationship, including convoluted military, political and financial ties.

Iran and Venezuela had exchanged diplomats since the 60s, but until 2005, that was the extent of their ties. As soon as Ahmadinejad was elected president, the leaders became bffs. Although their histories and cultures have precious little in common, the two megalomaniacal leaders shared a ruthless determination to dominate their respective regions along with a hatred of America and Israel, and in 2007 declared an "axis of unity." Then-Manhattan DA, Robert Morgenthau, conducted extensive research into the Venezuela-Iran relationship in 2009.

Ahmadinejad and Chavez entered into a series of Memoranda of Understanding, pledging cooperation in areas as diverse as banking and finance, technology, and oil and gas exploration. By most accounts, Chavez has helped his friend to evade international sanctions. Iran launders tens of billions of dollars in transactions through Venezuelan banks and industrial entities. Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA, continues to break the embargo.
Analysts differ on the extent to which Iran-sponsored Hezbollah has infiltrated Venezuela’s government. At a minimum, however, Hezbollah raises revenues for jihadist exploits through its involvement in the cocaine trade, with the full complicity of Venezuelan officials.

Alarmingly, over the past few years, periodically there have been reports of long-range Iranian missiles in Venezuela, in striking distance if the U.S.

Given their mutual adoration, it’s not surprising that Ahmadinejad posted on his website, "I have no doubt that he [Chavez] will return alongside Jesus Christ and the Mahdi [the Hidden Imam] to establish peace and justice in the world…" Bases covered.

Does Chavez’s death represent an opportunity to disrupt this unholy alliance?

Hard to tell.

Polls show former vice president Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor and now acting president (instant incumbency?), the likely winner on April 16th. Maduro has fashioned himself as a Chavez clone, but he lacks the late leader’s charisma and his command. Madura’s challenger, Henrique Capriles, is the centrist governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s largest state,

Neither of Venezuela’s presidential candidates is likely to share Chavez’s popularity.
The winner may well need to focus on internal problems, including 20% inflation and rampant food shortages, for fear of civil unrest.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton suggests that, regardless of the outcome of the election, there may be an opening for the U.S. and Venezuela to resume relations. As ambitious as this sounds, Morgenthau recalls:

In 1962, President Kennedy stared down a nuclear threat to the United States when a leftist popular leader with a strong anti-American streak joined forces with the Soviet Union to bring nuclear weapons in close proximity to our borders. JFK ended the Cuban missile crisis through resolve and tough diplomacy.

Ending the alliance with Iran and ejecting Hezbollah would be preconditions to normalization of U.S. - Venezuela relations.

Obama is no JFK, but we tolerate Iranian influence in Latin America at our peril.

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