Iran ramps up arms transfers to Venezuela and plans regional strife

As Tehran and Caracas face mounting economic turmoil, both regimes strengthen military ties

Handout photo released by the Venezuelan Presidency press office of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores (L) wearing a face mask while participating in the commemoration ceremony of the bicentennial of the Armistice and War Regularization Treaties, the centennial of the Bolivarian Military Aviation and the 28th Anniversary of the Civil Military Rebellion, in Maracay, Aragua state, Venezuela on November 27, 2020. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT AFP PHOTO / VENEZUELAN PRESIDENCY / JHONN ZERPA - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS -DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Iran has ramped up weapons transfers, via sea and air, to the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, according to US Admiral Craig Faller.

Co-operation between the staunchly anti-American regimes is not unusual, but Adm Faller, who spoke to The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, said arms transfers could be part of a plan to threaten US interests across South America.

“We’re real concerned about what Iran is up to, not just globally, but here in this hemisphere,” Adm Faller said.

Iran has said it will retaliate not only for last Friday’s assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh but also for the death of high-ranking general Qassem Suleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad on January 3.

Any attack in response to these killings may not necessarily occur in the Middle East.

One of two Iranian airlines alleged to be supplying Mr Maduro with arms is Mahan Air. The US imposed sanctions on the civilian airline in October 2011, after Washington accused it of working on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to supply the forces of President Bashar Al Assad in Syria.

In October, an aircraft belonging to Qeshm Fars Air, also under US sanctions, landed in Caracas, showed the flight-tracking website Flightradar24.

New capabilities

Financial challenges facing Caracas and Tehran, which have worsened in 2020, could explain one area of reported co-operation – drones.

Conflicts such as the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war have shown that relatively inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be devastating in a conventional conflict. No military power has yet developed proven countermeasures.

"Iranian arms transfers to Venezuela, especially UAV technology, would be a grave concern for the US and regional stability," said Ryan Berg, a research fellow at The American Enterprise Institute and specialist on security in Latin America.

"In the wake of another prominent assassination of someone linked to Iran's nuclear program, it is important to note that Iran has strategically penetrated several areas of South America, making retaliation for such a strike possible," he said.

"Through proxy groups like Hezbollah, the Iranians have struck in South America before, most devastatingly in Buenos Aires in 1992 and again in 1994," added Mr Berg, referring to devastating terrorist attacks targeting the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community group, killing over 100 people.

Drones would be particularly attractive to Venezuela, which has spent billions on more conventional Russian weapons such as the S-400 anti-missile system, equipment thought by some to be inoperable due to a lack of funds. But this has not stopped Mr Maduro from deploying his forces in the Caribbean, sending anti-aircraft missiles to the island of Orchila in May.

Mr Maduro also announced that his country was developing its own drones, technology on which Iran and Venezuela have been co-operating since 2012.

During a televised speech by Mr Maduro, made in an aircraft hangar on November 20, analysts noted what appeared to be a model of an Iranian Mohajer-6 unmanned combat aerial vehicle.

This suggests Tehran is serious about helping Venezuela to develop more nimble capabilities to complement its underfunded conventional military.

Caribbean attack?

Iran claims one of its recent drones, the Kian, has a 965-kilometre range, which means that Tehran could – if the IRGC desire, harass US interests or those of its allies across much of the Caribbean, as Iran has targeted US interests, including the oil infrastructure of allies, across the Gulf.

If Iran decides to strike US interests in the Caribbean, the IRGC could claim innocence, particularly if forces loyal to Mr Maduro have the equipment to conduct the attack.

Tehran has used similar tactics in Iraq and Yemen. After missiles struck oil processing infrastructure at Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia in September 2019 – one of the largest attacks on oil infrastructure in history – Iran denied any role. Houthi militias, backed by Iran, claimed credit, but a UN report in June 2020 concluded the missiles used in the attack were "of Iranian origin".

Militia franchise

In 2010, a partially redacted Pentagon report was released to Congress, stating that the IRGC had established networks “in Latin America, particularly Venezuela”.

Whatever Iran’s intentions – to supply fuel and condensate for Mr Maduro’s ailing regime in exchange for Venezuelan gold, or something more hostile, Tehran’s involvement is quickly reaching an advanced stage.

In September, former chief commander of the IRGC, Maj Gen Yahya Rahim Safavi told the state-run Mehr News Agency that Iranian advisers were creating a “popular force” of militias in Venezuela.

Caracas already has a large force of paramilitaries, akin to Iran’s Basij militia and Iran-backed elements of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces. These groups have taken part in brutal crackdowns on demonstrators.

Even if Tehran’s aims are not openly hostile to US interests in the Caribbean, Iranian assistance to Venezuela will likely strengthen Mr Maduro’s rule.

The arms transfers are "bad news for average Venezuelans, as their government prioritises buying weapons over attending to the country's unfolding humanitarian crisis," said Mr Berg.