Venezuela the New Niger?
The Bush Administration is Trying to Link Hugo Chavez to Iran's Nuclear Program
By LARRY BIRNS and MICHAEL LETTIERI
Washington is no stranger to flimsy pretexts when it comes to justifying its ill-conceived, and at times illicit, Latin American initiatives. The contra epoch, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, Ollie North, former U.S. ambassador John Negroponte's skullduggery in Honduras, and countless acts of chicanery aimed at Havana, Santiago, Grenada and Guatemala come to mind.
A spate of articles tying Hugo Chávez to Iran's covert nuclear program suggests that Washington may now be finding it increasingly difficult to resist further calumniating Venezuela by working to forge a new weapon for its anti-Caracas jihad.
The only problem is that the basis for such a charge would be a complete concoction, more worthy to be put to work in Iraq, where anything goes, than in Latin America. Such a scenario would intimate that ties exist between alleged Venezuelan uranium supplies and the Iranian nuclear program. In other words, Caracas would be presented as a terrorist nation, illicitly involved in trafficking bootleg uranium to the pariah Iranian regime in exchange for nuclear devices and maybe other considerations.
In the fall of 2005, Venezuelan officials began to explore the possibility of acquiring nuclear reactor technology from either Argentina or Brazil, both of which have nuclear energy programs and facilities for peaceful use. This maneuver provoked a predictably prickly response from the State Department, which made no effort to disguise the fact that it would not be amused if this transaction would be carried out. While no agreement was ever reached or shipments made, Caracas already had established close political ties with Tehran, which became yet another reason why the White House was suspicious of Chávez's ultimate intent. Iran's decision to resume enrichment of uranium this year, which has now provoked an international uproar, also brought new scrutiny to the purported burgeoning relationship between that nation and Venezuela. At the U.N., Caracas helped fuel such suspicions, as Venezuela was one of only a handful of member nations that expressed support for Iran's resumption of peaceful nuclear activity which would effectively not be under the U.N.'s supervision.
The wide-ranging, if somewhat vague, cooperation agreements between Iran and Venezuela were repeatedly reiterated by Washington sources to suggest that more malignant factors might be at play. The most popular rumor had Caracas sending its uranium to Iran in exchange for nuclear technology, with the most radical version beginning with accusations that Caracas was seeking to obtain weaponry from Tehran. Some went so far as to suggest that nuclear devices already had been clandestinely transported to Venezuela on chartered oil tankers. Further speculative intrigue came about after the expulsion of the New Tribes missionaries from the Amazonas region in February, as stampeding rumors began to circulate that the evangelical group was somehow involved in uranium exploration activities in the state of Bolívar and that the missionaries' airstrip was facilitating such anti-Chávez operations. The allegations, which included purported links to the CIA, were heatedly denied by the group.
Much to do about Nothing
Yet all of these theories concerning some diabolic plot linking Iran to Hugo Chávez have been entirely based on a handful of anemic charges coming from several former Chávez officials, who, at best, merely quote each other, but fail to advance the core of their charge or provide minimum evidence that Venezuela somehow has been complicit with Iran when it came to supplying uranium to the latter. In turn, their diaphanous allegations are now being picked up by kindred rightwing sources domiciled in the U.S. who write enraged op-eds in Rev. Moon's Washington Times ("Showdown with Chávez") or get like-minded congressional colleagues to make rabid speeches from the floor of congress accusing Chávez of striving to hatch a nuclear plot with Tehran or some other threatening complot.
While the rumors sometimes involve an alleged Israeli intelligence report which speaks of covert uranium mining in Venezuela, the so-called findings have never been seen, let alone validated. In fact, while Venezuela may possess some yet to be established uranium deposits, there is no evidence that these have been located, let alone worked. Venezuelan officials have vehemently denied charges that the country is facilitating the enrichment of uranium by the Iranians, and even the State Department has minimized such suggestions, noting that while it is "aware of reports of possible Iranian exploitation of Venezuelan uranium," it does not see any "commercial uranium activities in Venezuela." Furthermore, the speculated ties overlook the fact that Iran does not particularly need to import uranium all the way from Venezuela for its projects, as it has ample supplies of its own.
All of this likely matters little to the Bush administration, which is likely feeling increased pressure from its own policy hardliners to take an anti-Chávez stand. The recent Bolivian gas nationalization has been cited by extra conservative pundits, whose knowledge of Latin America is barely enough for them to cite Venezuela's capital city as evidence of the pernicious spread of Chavista influence.
They also derisively point to the lack of any U.S. response to this challenge. Such militancy on their part, combined with Washington's growing tension with Iran, may make the time ripe for some form of diplomatic or even a retaliatory response to allegations of Venezuela's special relationship with Tehran and other manifestations of anti-U.S. behavior.
Such a step by Washington would be entirely predicated on rumors, inventions, and conjecture--a script, at this point at least, entirely based on phony or no evidence--like the spurious yellowcake of Niger which provided the basis for U.S. intervention in Iraq. By conceivably tying Chávez into the Iranian crisis, the Bush administration possibly could be laying the groundwork for its own dirty tricks campaign.
Yet the world would be well-advised to be wary of such machinations: mysterious vials, contrived satellite images, or fuzzy photographs are now beginning to be employed for tendentiously-pursued, if illusory, ends by a brigade of Chávez-bashers serving under a variety of self-serving ideological gods.
Larry Birns is director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Michael Lettieri is a research fellow at COHA.