With the complicity of leftist rulers in Venezuela, Bolivia and even Argentina, Iran's sanction-ridden regime is spreading its tentacles in South America, and could even undermine democracies.
CARACAS — The dangers posed by Venezuela's relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran is something we've warned about before. Though not new, the dangers have changed considerably in recent years.
They began under Venezuela's late leader, Hugo Chávez , when he decided to turn his back on the West and move closer to countries outside our geopolitical sphere. In 2005, Chávez and Iran's then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, signed collaborative agreements in areas beyond the economy, with goals that included challenging the West and spreading Iran's presence in Latin America.
That never immediately yielded initiatives, but in the past three years Chávez's successor, Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro, has breathed new life into the ties as part of his bid to retain power at any cost.
Refineries and supermarkets
To get a glance of the depth of Maduro's relations with Iran, one need only see the Iranians now busy repairing refineries, guiding sanction-evading policies, exerting undue influence on the defense sector and even opening supermarkets in Caracas.
Iranians showed Venezuela their prototype for a rocket-launching drone.
Their presence in Venezuela as a consequential political actor is real, and certainly related to Maduro's trip earlier in June to the Middle East, which included a stop in Tehran to meet with the regime's top leaders. After the meetings, the Iranian and Venezuelan presidents held a press conference to announce the agreements signed in the visit, though strangely, said nothing about defense, where Iran has gained relevance.
As late as 2021 the Iranians were reported to have shown Venezuela their prototype for a rocket-launching drone.
Maduro's trip to Tehran also coincided with a disturbing report on a suspicious plane landing in Argentina, with a crew of 14 Venezuelans and five Iranians. The plane and its departure point have raised all manner of questions, but information confirmed in Argentina so far suggests it was a grave threat to hemispheric security.
The plane in question
Firstly, we know it was owned by Mahan Air, an Iranian carrier previously sanctioned for taking arms and supplies to extremists or militants in the Middle East. Five months ago, this plane was transferred to Conviasa, an airline owned by the Venezuelan regime and also subject to sanctions.
Secondly, at least one of the crew members was duly identified as a member of the Quds Force, a commando unit of the Iranian Revolutionary guards. The group are listed as active collaborators of international terrorism.
The plane was reported to have travelled to Uruguay to refuel before returning to Venezuela, but Uruguay's government banned it from its airspace following information it had received on its movements. Its flight path was anything but anodyne, having stopped in Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, a hotbed of continental crime and trafficking, and suspected operating zone for Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group long linked to the Iranian regime.
At Kabul Airport
The Argentine judiciary is now investigating the plane, and its crew and suspect connections. As Argentina has already suffered the terrorism of Iran-linked elements in the past, this incident cannot be underestimated. Faced with a threat to the peace and security of Argentines, the government of President Alberto Fernández should fully probe the plane's mission. Did elements in the Argentine government know about it, its crew members and foreign ties? The public has a right to know and must force the Argentine authorities to provide plausible explanations.
Unfortunately, Fernández, like his Mexican counterpart, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has become an unstinting apologist for Maduro. With a conniving, cynical and inhumane discourse, Fernández has whitewashed dictatorial practices and state violence exerted by Maduro and certain other strongmen.
Still, one thing is ideological sympathies, and another the security of Argentines and the region's inhabitants.
Maduro's relations with Iran have acquired another dimension. It is no longer about Right and Left and who is right, but about the future of Western, liberal-democratic values in our region. The anti-Western powers are working on a new order, and regional democracies should see the Argentine affair as an alarm bell.
For such incidents will surreptitiously undermine security until it is blown up, as it was in the Middle East. Maduro has become a firm ally of anti-Western powers like Russia, China, Cuba and Iran. And they are using him as their foothold to destabilize the region. It is time to draw a line and thwart Maduro's spiraling ties with this axis of chaos.
*Borges is a member of the Venezuelan opposition, a former legislator and co-founder of the Justice First party.