Chávez's Secret Nuclear Program

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez admitted last week that his government is "carrying out the first studies" of a nuclear program. He attempted to portray it as an innocuous program designed solely for peaceful purposes.

On Sept. 21, I held a briefing for journalists and regional experts where I revealed for the first time information about Chavez's nuclear program and his troubling and substantial collaboration with Iran. This research--conducted during the past 12 months by a team of experts who analyzed sensitive material obtained from sources within the Venezuelan regime--paints a far darker picture of Chavez's intentions.

Chávez has been developing the program for two years with the collaboration of Iran, a nuclear rogue state. In addition to showing the two states' cooperation on nuclear research, these documents suggest that Venezuela is helping Iran obtain uranium and evade international sanctions, all steps that are apparent violations of the U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to forestall Iran's illegal nuclear weapons program.

There is nothing illegal about the commercial mining of uranium--unless it is conducted by Iran.

Chávez's suggestion that he is merely studying the idea of a nuclear energy program is misleading. In fact, in November 2008, Iranian and Venezuelan officials signed a secret "science and technology" agreement formalizing cooperation "in the field of nuclear technology." (The text of the agreement, available in Farsi and Spanish, is available here.) The week after the agreement was signed, Venezuela's Ministry of Energy and Petroleum prepared a presentation for the International Atomic Energy Agency documenting the establishment of a "nuclear power programme" in Venezuela. That presentation, obtained from sources within the Venezuelan government, reveals that an "Atomic Energy Committee" has been managing the nuclear program since 2007.

All countries have the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Venezuela is a signatory. However, Chávez's decision to rely on one of the world's worst proliferators to help develop his country's capabilities in this sensitive technology sets alarm bells ringing. And his recent public declarations understating the nature of his nuclear program raise more questions than they answer.

It's not only Venezuela's cooperation with Iran on its own nuclear program that raises questions--other documents provided by sources within the Venezuelan government reveal a suspicious network of Iranian-run facilities in that South American country that could contravene Security Council sanctions.

For example, a November 2008 contract between a Venezuelan state-run firm, CVG Minerven, and the Iranian government firm Impasco grants the Iranians a "gold mine" concession in the heart of the Roraima basin in the southeastern state of Bolivar, which sits along the Venezuela-Guyana border. Although gold mining in Venezuela goes back decades, the basin is also home to one of the world's largest deposits of uranium, according to a survey by the U308 Corp., a Canadian uranium exploration company.

There is nothing illegal about the commercial mining of uranium--unless it is conducted by Iran. Security Council Resolution 1929, passed this June after an aggressive diplomatic effort by the United States, ordered all governments to prohibit any Iranian involvement in "uranium mining, production or use of nuclear materials and technology." If Iran's Impasco has struck gold in Venezuela, that is nobody's business. If it is mining uranium, that is quite a different matter.

In addition to acquiring a mine strategically located above substantial uranium deposits, Iranian firms have taken over nearby industrial facilities and seem to be using them for purposes other than those publicly stated. For example, a "cement plant" produces little if any cement, a "tractor factory" produces few tractors, and both facilities are well situated for supporting Iran's shadowy activities in an area that is far from everything but uranium.

The "cement plant," in fact, processes ore from the Impasco mine, according to sources familiar with the facility. The facility, located in southern Monagas state, was built in 2007 by Edhasse Sanat, a firm owned by Iran's Ministry of Mines. According to eyewitnesses, the plant has yet to produce a bag of cement but, instead, serves as a conduit for moving ore to a port on the Orinoco River, where it is transferred onto Iranian-flagged vessels on the Atlantic Ocean. Once it reaches the open sea, there is nothing to prevent its delivery to Iran.

The "tractor factory" in the state of Bolivar is a second facility that provides Iran a benign cover for its activities in this remote region. Operated since 2006 by a Venezuela-Iran joint venture, the facility produces few tractors and is housed in a military-style compound protected by Venezuelan National Guard troops, according to two eyewitnesses who have visited and videotaped the facility in recent years.

Deep suspicions about the actual purpose of that facility were raised in December 2008 when Turkish customs authorities intercepted a shipment sent from Iran to the "tractor factory" in Venezuela. According to media reports, 22 cargo containers and crates labeled "tractor parts" were found to contain barrels of nitrate and sulfite chemicals--bomb-making material--as well as components of what Turkish experts described as an "explosives lab." Moreover, this suspicious cargo was being delivered by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in September 2008 for providing logistical services to Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics.

In addition to providing physical cover for Iranian operations, banks and other purportedly commercial ventures established in Venezuela afford Iran access to the international financial sector in violation of several Security Council resolutions intended to deny funds to the country's illicit nuclear weapons program. Resolution 1803 (2008) warns governments to "exercise vigilance" against Iranian banks, specifically Bank Saderat, "to avoid such activities contributing to the proliferation of sensitive nuclear activities." Documents retrieved from Venezuelan government archives (available in Spanish here) show that by 2007, Iran's Bank Saderat had already incorporated the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo (BID) in Venezuela. All of BID's founding directors are Iranian, and it appears to operate today as a Venezuelan bank that is actually a wholly-owned front for Saderat. Records of Iranian firms operating in Venezuela reflect dollar-denominated transactions carried out by BID in contravention of U.S. law and U.N. resolutions.

The United Nations had good reason to single out Saderat as a possible conduit for funds used to finance terrorism and nuclear proliferation. In 2006, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Saderat for serving as a conduit for funds to the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah. Only two months ago, the European Union froze BID's assets for its role in supporting Iran's "nuclear or ballistic missile activities." Yet Chávez's government continues to allow BID to move money through Iranian front companies and Venezuelan partners in order to evade international sanctions.

Ignoring what Chávez and his friends are up to right under our noses is no longer an option. If the United States and the United Nations are serious about nonproliferation, they must challenge Venezuela and Iran to come clean and, if necessary, take steps to hold both regimes accountable. Unfortunately, U.S. policymakers continue to shy away from issues that might lead to a confrontation with the irascible Chávez. But Venezuela's willingness to flout international law and abet Iran's activities close to U.S. shores is becoming too flagrant--and ultimately, too dangerous--to ignore.

Roger F. Noriega, a senior State Department official from 2001 to 2005, is a visiting fellow at AEI and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents foreign and domestic clients.

Photo Credit: flickr/Blatantnews

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