Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is visiting Tehran today, along with his sidekick, Bolivian president Evo Morales. It’s Chávez’s ninth trip in the past 18 months but this one’s special because he’s stopping over on his way back from Moscow, where he announced a nuclear deal with the Russians. The Venezuelan strongman’s itinerary and business agenda hardly allays fears over the Venezuela-Iran-Russia partnership that some see as a growing threat in Washington’s backyard. It’s an alliance that features not only nuclear cooperation and energy resources, but also conventional arms and terrorism.
Last Friday’s announcement from Moscow that Chávez and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev had reached an agreement for Russia to build two 1200-megawatt nuclear reactors in Venezuela got worldwide play. However, the deal has been in the works for over two years, or since 2008, when many in the international community criticized Russia’s incursion into Georgia, and Russia thumbed its nose at the West by offering Venezuela access to nuclear power. Moscow’s deal with Caracas follows on the heels of its construction of a similar reactor in Iran that it completed this August.
Iran has been seeking uranium from Venezuela (as well as Bolivia), while both Iran and Venezuela want nuclear technology and more conventional weaponry from Russia. In exchange, Venezuela is offering money and mineral wealth— uranium and gasoline for Iran; gold, oil, uranium and natural gas for Russia. It appears that Moscow is sending T-72 and T-90 tanks that will replace the aging French MX-30s. Putin assured Caracas that Russia will soon deliver the first 35 tanks out of the 92 Venezuela has ordered. In addition, Venezuela intends to buy 10 Ilyushin Il-76MD-90 planes, two Il-78MK refueling aircraft, as well as five S-300 missile systems. Iran also sought the S-300 but Medvedev banned the sale for fear of violating U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, concerning sanctions on Iran. The S-300 missiles and their attendant Smerch multiple rocket launchers are considered far more powerful than the Tor M-1 missile systems that both Venezuela and Iran have previously purchased in the past five years. Caracas has also confirmed plans to purchase up to 10 Mi-28NE attack helicopters on top of the 10 Mi-35M helicopters purchased in the past half-decade.
Since 2005, Venezuela has spent $4.4 billion on Russian weaponry, making it Latin America’s biggest consumer of Russian military hardware. This new purchase will be completed through a credit of an additional $2.2 billion Moscow is granting Caracas. A total of $6.6 billion worth of new weaponry is an awful lot for a country that has not fought a war since its independence from Spain in 1821. While Chávez has said that he is arming his citizen militias, known as Bolivarian Circles, rumor has it that the weapons may also be going to agents and fighters from the Colombian FARC, Hezbollah and Cuban security and intelligence services, whose numbers, according to many think tanks and U.S. security sources, have swelled in Venezuela. Interpol confirmed evidence that Venezuela has funneled well over $300 million to the FARC and has built an ammunition plant to supply AK-103s, the FARC weapon of choice. In tandem with Venezuela’s military buildup, Chávez’s avowed support for the FARC is a real worry for Colombia as well as Washington, which sees Colombia as its closest regional ally.
Venezuelan money has also been flowing into Iran. In July 2010, the EU ordered the seizure of all the assets of the Venezuelan International Development Bank, an affiliate of the Export Development Bank of Iran, one of 34 Iranian entities implicated in the development of nuclear or ballistic missile technology. Even as Caracas denied that the bank had any ties to Iran’s nuclear program, it had already been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.
While these budding alliances between Moscow, Tehran and Caracas are of serious concern to the international community, it is unclear what will come of the nuclear deal with Russia. Among other things, since Venezuela isn’t meeting its OPEC quotas, it doesn’t seem to have the money to pay for the reactors; moreover, as I wrote last week, there is evidence that Chávez may find himself out of office with the 2012 elections.
Indeed, it’s not clear how these commercial, military and energy accords will play domestically. Chávez rationalizes that the nuclear program is necessary in a country like Venezuela that regularly suffers energy shortages. But those shortages result from a lack of investment in infrastructure. After all, in addition to enormous oil and natural gas reserves, Venezuela has some of the greatest hydroelectric dams in the world—which are poorly maintained and often not working properly. And now instead of fixing things at home, Chávez is spending Venezuelans’ patrimony abroad in order to project power, not Venezuela’s, but his own.