Walking through the aisles of a newly constructed Caracas grocery store, Venezuelans can expect to see authentic Iranian food brands, such as Delnoosh and Varamin. The supermarket, Iran’s latest foray into the country, is connected to Tehran’s feared clerical army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and comes at a time when tensions are intensifying in Iran and the Middle East.
As reported in the Center for a Secure Free Society’s monthly VRIC Monitor —named for the emerging security and intelligence alliance between Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and China— the Islamic Republic continues to come out of the shadows in Venezuela, as the two rogue regimes begin to openly conduct support operations despite U.S and international sanctions.
To provide political cover for these activities and evade U.S. sanctions, Iran and Venezuela have labeled its cooperation as humanitarian assistance. However, these activities are coordinated by Iranian state-owned entities linked to the military, implying a more sinister motive to the alliance’s open cooperation.
In May, five Iranian-flagged tankers arrived in Venezuela, delivering approximately 1.5 millions barrels of fuel with promises for more. The successful shipment was celebrated, with a mass propaganda campaign on behalf of the Venezuela and Iranian regimes, as a chink in the armor of U.S. sanctions.
A separate set of Liberian-flagged tankers set sail for Venezuela but were later blocked through U.S. diplomatic and economic pressure. Two of these vessels were registered in Greece, and detained off the coast of Senegal near Cape Verde. The U.S. Treasury also subsequently sanctioned the captains of the five original tankers from Iran and all four Liberian-flagged vessels are part of a civil forfeiture complaint in the District of Columbia. This complaint alleges that these tankers are part of a strategic alignment between National Iranian Oil Company and the IRGC.
Although the five oil tankers and Liberian-flagged ships got the most publicity, at least 103 other tankers have visited Venezuela for the first time in the past year, according to one study. Many of them use sanctions-evasion techniques such as ship-to-ship transfers and turning off their transponders.
Of concern is the potential dual-use of these supposed gas and oil shipments to and from Venezuela, particularly as it relates to Iranian state-owned companies known for the proliferation of WMD materials and means of delivery.
The presence of Iran’s clerical army, the IRGC, in Venezuela was further confirmed with the arrival of a tanker delivering food to Venezuela on June 21 to open the Islamic Republic’s first supermarket in Caracas.
The store is a subsidiary of a company called Etka, which is under the umbrella of the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL). The MODAFL has had military-to-military cooperation with Venezuela for more than a decade, which led to the first sanctions on PDVSA in 2011 and on Venezuela’s military logistics arm, CAVIM, in 2013. The Iranian defense logistics has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for aiding Iran’s procurement of ballistic missiles.
In 2009, former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez signed a document partnering with Iran to create a joint powder production line with nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose, both of which are used to create rocket propellants. These earlier agreements fueled speculation that a potential missile base would be built on the Paraguaná Peninsula, close to the Colombian border.
In a strategic move that solidified the Tehran-Caracas relationship, the newly-appointed Minister of Petroleum Tareck El Aissami ceded the Amuay refinery in Paraguana to Iran in return for Iran restarting gasoline production at the facility. Iran’s Mahan Air, which has been sanctioned by the U.S. for facilitating the IRGC’s activities, has engaged in no fewer than 17 flights to Venezuela since April to allegedly deliver supplies to restart the refinery. Sixteen of these flights landed in Punto Fijo on the peninsula, accompanied by the original five Iranian tankers that arrived in late May docked at the port of Cardón in Paraguaná.
The dual-use nature of the Iranian entities involved in this so-called humanitarian shipment, and Iran’s limited capability to actually help Venezuelans, calls into question Tehran and Maduro’s motives for developing an air and sea bridge from the Middle East to Venezuela.
Iran’s renewed foray into the Caribbean comes at a time when mysterious explosions have been taking place at or near various nuclear facilities throughout the country, one destroying an advanced centrifuge production center near the Natanz uranium-enrichment complex. Iran insists that the initial explosions were due to gas leaks and outright denies the more recent blasts.
Iran’s own instability has not drawn the country away from the Western Hemisphere; instead, it has increased its forward-facing presence in the region, instigating the U.S. in the Caribbean and elsewhere. As things intensify in Iran, and conflict erupts with its proxy networks in the Middle East, Latin America seems to be of increasing interest for the Islamic Republic.