Iran sent weapons and dispatched paramilitary operations to help the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, maintain your power, the top US military commander for Central and South America said on Wednesday.
« We see a growing Iranian influence there, » said the admiral Craig faller, head of the Southern Hemisphere command, and cited a presence « Alarming and worrying » elite military personnel from the Quds Forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Tehran has used that force to back Syrian President Basher Assad and other foreign allies and subsidiary groups.
The Iranian and Venezuelan missions to the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Iran is just one of America’s adversaries that has backed the embattled leader. Thousands of Cubans have been « basically owning » the country’s intelligence service and being a guard force that protects Maduro, Admiral Faller said. Hundreds of Russians have also been instrumental in providing support to « keep key elements of Maduro’s Army ready enough, » he added.
Craig Faller, head of the Southern Hemisphere command.
Admiral Faller’s comments on Iran come at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Tehran and represent a bizarre instance in which a senior US military official has publicly accused Iran of sending weapons to Venezuela.
The United States, he said, has made considerable effort to try to distinguish between humanitarian cargo and shipments that go against international sanctions aimed at undermining Maduro’s grip on power.
“We are concerned about what we see. It is not just oil shipments, they are arms shipments too ”, said. “We saw a rebound in that this year. We are watching the exchange rate very carefully ”.
Admiral Faller did not specify the weapons the United States says are being delivered. In September, the State Department sanctioned the Iranian defense unit and said it had ties to the Maduro regime, in what US officials said was an attempt to deter the sale of conventional weapons, including includes military jets, ships, and tanks.
Iran and Venezuela have long shared diplomatic ties, but the Trump administration’s economic sanctions against the two countries prompted them to strengthen relations.
Hit by the « maximum pressure » campaign from the Americans, Iran has been desperate to sell its petroleum products. US and international sanctions against Venezuela have made that country an eager buyer.
Tehran has been trading its fuel for oil from Venezuela, that he has sold through the black market, say American and Western officials. Iran has also been paid in gold from Venezuela’s vast deposits, showing that Tehran has a product that is difficult for sanctions supervisors to trace, they said.
Oil installations on Lake Maracaibo in Cabimas, Venezuela, January 29, 2019. . / Isaac Urrutia / File photo
The United States has halted some of those fuel shipments, but Venezuelan analysts say the deliveries are continuing. The flotillas are usually accompanied by Iranian naval vessels, including an intelligence ship that US officials say has been used to transport missiles to Iranian subsidiary groups in the Middle East, according to US officials.
Iranian airline Mahan Air, a company sanctioned by the United States for transporting men, money and weapons for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps designated as a terrorist, also restarted flights between the two countries, according to the company and flight tracking data.
Earlier this year, an Iranian conglomerate owned by the country’s military and linked to its missile program established a retail position in Venezuela, according to Western officials and records detailing the move.
In addition to providing a potential avenue to evade sanctions, the retail link may be a way for Tehran to export military expertise and technology, US officials say.
Another concern for the United States is that Iran could use its presence in South America and its ties to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that also operates in the region, to retaliate against the United States.
« We are really concerned about what Iran is doing, not only globally, but here in this hemisphere, » Admiral Faller said, adding that some members of the large Lebanese diaspora in South America had ties to Hezbollah.