Venezuela hosts Russian bombers —and Hezbollah?

Two Russian Tu-16 bombers landed in Venezuela Sept. 10 as part of military maneuvers. President Hugo Chávez said he hopes to “fly one of those things” himself. The maneuvers mark the first time Russian strategic bombers have landed in the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War. Chávez called the deployment part of a move toward a “pluri-polar world.” “The Yankee hegemony is finished,” he said in a televised speech. Although the bombers were not armed, Chávez warned that their arrival puts the US “on notice.” NATO fighters escorted the two bombers on their 13-hour trip to Venezuela over the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, the Russian Defense Ministry said. (WP, Sept. 12; AP, Sept. 10)

The Russian maneuvers come days after the Los Angeles Times touted claims by “Western anti-terrorism officials” that Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shi’ite militia, is using Venezuela as a base for operations. The report said Hezbollah may be taking advantage of Venezuela’s ties with Iran to move “people and things” into the Americas, as one (anonymous) “Western government terrorism expert” (allegedly) put it.

“It’s becoming a strategic partnership between Iran and Venezuela,” said a “Western anti-terrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity.” In June, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon said Iran “has a history of terror in this hemisphere, and its linkages to the bombings in Buenos Aires are pretty well established. One of our broader concerns is what Iran is doing elsewhere in this hemisphere and what it could do if we were to find ourselves in some kind of confrontation with Iran,” Shannon said.

Fears about Hezbollah’s global networks intensified after the February slaying of militia leader Imad Mughniyah in Damascus. Hezbollah and Iran accused Israel and pledged revenge. Allegations that Hezbollah and Iranian spies operate in Venezuela date to the 1990s, before Chávez took office.

In June, the US Treasury Department designated two Venezuelan citizens as Hezbollah supporters and froze their US assets. Treasury officials formally accused Ghazi Nasr al-Din, a Venezuelan diplomat of Lebanese descent, of using posts at embassies in the Middle East to arrange financing for Hezbollah and “discuss operational issues with senior officials” of the militia.

Nasr al-Din “facilitated the travel” of Hezbollah members to and from Venezuela and to a “training course in Iran,” according to (unnamed) Treasury officials. The president of a Shi’ite Muslim center in Caracas, al-Din served as a diplomat in Damascus and later in Beirut, authorities say.

The second Venezuelan targeted by Treasury is Fawzi Kanan, a Caracas-based travel agent. He is also alleged to have facilitated travel for Hezbollah members and to have discussed “possible kidnappings and terrorist attacks” with senior Hezbollah officials in Lebanon. In comments to the Venezuelan press, Kanan dismissed the charges as lies. The Venezuelan denies that it is harboring militants.

In March 2007, the intensified Venezuela-Iran ties led to the start of weekly IranAir flights from Tehran to Caracas that stop in Damascus. The flights were highlighted in the State Department’s annual assessment of global terrorism, which noted this April that Venezuelan border officials at the Caracas airport often neglected to enter the arriving passengers into their immigration database and did not stamp passports. The Venezuelans have since tightened up on their procedures, the LA Times said.

The IranAir flights feature in recent intelligence concerns. Agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah have allegedly set up a special force to attempt to kidnap Jewish business figures in Latin America to Lebanon, according to “the Western anti-terrorism official.” Iranian and Hezbollah operatives have allegedly recruited Venezuelan informants working at the Caracas airport to gather intelligence on Jewish travelers, “the Western anti-terrorism official said.” The anonymous official said Venezuela “is very, very important to Iran and Hezbollah right now.” (LAT, Aug. 27)

See our last posts on Venezuela, Hezbollah in Venezuela, Iran, Iran’s Latin America strategy, and Russia.

  1. Russian naval squadron sails for Venezuela
    A squadron from the Russian Navy’s North Sea Fleet set sail for Venezuela Sept. 22 to participate in joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan Navy in November, a Russian Navy spokesman said. (NYT, Spet. 23)