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Iran is operating an airlift to Venezuela

By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
web posted May 4, 2020

An Airbus A340 of Iran’s Mahan Air landed on April 26 at Las Piedras Airport, which is in Punto Fijo in the Venezuelan state of Falcòn. The local media reported that this was the third flight in a week (the previous ones occurred on April 22-23, some via China). This may be connected to an agreement that was signed between President Maduro and Iran. Despite the sweeping prohibition on flights declared by Maduro, the Iranian airlift to Venezuela is expected to continue, with 20 flights slated. Mahan inaugurated the flights to Venezuela about a year ago. A Russian plane also landed there despite the restrictions related to the coronavirus.

Venezuela’s deputy minister for refineries and petrochemicals said Iran had transferred technical equipment and materials to the Cardòn refinery, which is near the airport, with the aim of reactivating it. Some Iranian technicians are also supposed to be flown in. With the collapse of its refineries, Venezuela is suffering a severe fuel shortage, and a rehabilitation of the Cardòn refinery, which can refine about 300,000 barrels of oil per day, can help it somewhat alleviate the country’s ongoing energy crisis after years of neglect and U.S. sanctions.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó warned of the resumption of the Mahan flights; the airline is under U.S. sanctions because of its ties to drug cartels. Mahan serves the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps by transferring weapons to the Houthis in Yemen and Syria, and also in ferrying IRGC personnel and foreign fighters between Iran’s Middle Eastern theaters of activity (Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon). Guaidó says Iran is one of the main epicenters of the coronavirus and implies that the flights to Venezuela endanger its citizens. He claims these flights are perceived as carrying medical crews.

Venezuela and Iran, both of which are under U.S. “maximal sanctions,” continue to maintain a kind of strategic alliance amid this ongoing pressure and keep defying the United States. After Venezuela’s outrageous 2018 elections, in which the opposition candidates were prevented from running, the United States formed an anti-Maduro coalition of 60 countries.

Iran regards its activity and presence in Venezuela — America’s backyard — as a key anchor for its endeavors in Central America. Iran is trying to create symmetry in its conflict with the United States, and it views its defiant presence “facing U.S. shores” as a response to the U.S. activity in the Persian Gulf and the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates). With the election of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad in 2005, his visits to Venezuela, and his good relations with Hugo Chavez (who died in 2013), Iran and Venezuela enhanced their ties. As they saw it, they were cooperating in fighting “North American imperialism.” Chavez visited Iran in 2010.

Hispan TV
Hispan TV: an Iranian anti-American propaganda channel in Spanish

Alongside its economic activity and covert military presence in Venezuela, Iran is using Hispan TV to bolster its influence in Venezuela and in South America generally. Despite its different culture and religion, Iran is using propaganda in Spanish to disseminate anti-American themes that portray the United States in a negative and anti-Western light. The broadcasts present Iran as manning the front line against the “global arrogance” (the United States) and the harm it wreaks in the South American countries. Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, all of which are under the “criminal and terrorist” U.S. sanctions, are described as standing firm against the United States’ depredations. The station also offers films that present Maduro in a positive light and the United States as trying to topple him because of his opposition to its policy.

The Iranian flights to Venezuela will likely further exacerbate the mounting U.S.-Iranian tensions against the backdrop of the continuing sanctions, the tensions in the Gulf amid several recent incidents, and the attempts to form a government in Iraq. ESR

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Acumen Risk Advisors.

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