Joseph M. Humire, the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) and a fellow at the Middle East Forum, spoke to participants in a May 8 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about Iran's involvement in Venezuela.
Iran and its Lebanese Shia proxy Hezbollah have been heavily involved in Latin America for a long time. The presence of large Lebanese immigrant communities and weak rule of law have allowed Hezbollah's illicit criminal enterprises to flourish.
Increasingly the Iranians have made a "strategic calculation" to build the kind of presence that would "allow them to threaten the United States in ways that maybe they hadn't been able to threaten us in the Middle East." Their rapidly expanding ties to Venezuela's Maduro regime, which is "geo-strategically located right at the heart" of Central America and South America, are central to this ambition. Much like the "land bridge" they have through Syria is logistically vital to their influence in the Middle East, "Venezuela is their air bridge into the Western hemisphere." Instead of partnering mainly with Islamist groups, as it does in the Middle East, Iran has increasingly partnered with "drug cartels ... [and] old former communist networks."
Iran's Mahan Airlines, which has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury and banned from flying to major European countries because of its role shuttling Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps(IRGC) personnel and supplies from Iran to Syria in support of the Assad regime, has been making flights to and from Venezuela since the Venezuelan presidential crisis a year ago. According to Humire, "at least 16 flights from Mahan Air" have landed at the northernmost tip of Venezuela since April 22, ostensibly to support work on an oil refinery there, but "who knows exactly" what they're carrying.
Iran has jointly set up automotive and chemical plants with Venezuela's military industry, which Humire believes could provide the Iranian regime with dual-use products for its nuclear and ballistic missile program, safe from the prying eyes of international inspectors.
As for what the United States can do, Humire said it's important to recognize that the chances of elements of the Venezuelan military staging a successful coup against the Maduro regime, as many Americans hope for, are "zero to none." This is partly because the Venezuelan military is a "failed institution" and partly because regime officials have "created militias ... their version of [Iran's] Revolutionary Guards to be able to deter any type of military uprising." Thus, "it's no surprise that there's been at least six or seven attempts at a military revolt essentially since 2017 and all of them have failed."
What the U.S. can do is "build a better neighborhood" in the region:
The best way to deal with Venezuela is not to try to do anything inside Venezuela, but to deal with the network that exists outside Venezuela. Because, Maduro depends on that network. If that network were to go away or be diminished, he would fall on his own. He has no real political capital inside the country. But he has maintained his iron grip on power because his regional and extra regional network have propped him up.
Building a "better neighborhood" is also critical to countering Iranian influence.
Essentially, the more partners the United States has in Latin America, the harder it is for Iran. ... [W]e might not be able to contest Iran in Venezuela, but we can contest them in Colombia. We can contest them in Brazil, we can contest them in Mexico. And so we need to focus on the countries where we have strength in relationships ... [to] nudge out the Iranians.
The Trump administration has enjoyed some success this regard. Under American pressure, four countries in the region designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization last year, said Humire, and "there's more to be expected this year." This has major implications, as Hezbollah "is present in just about every country in Latin America at some level." Most are not trained terrorist operatives, but that does not make them any less dangerous:
Whether they're facilitators, whether they're financiers, at the end of the day their purpose is the same ... be able to build Hezbollah's asymmetric capabilities worldwide, to be able to threaten Israel in the United States. So whether that is a money launderer or whether that is a drug trafficker, it goes towards the same purpose.
The U.S. also needs to combat the propaganda underlying Iran's influence operations in the hemisphere. In Latin America, Iran "doesn't present itself as a theocracy ... It presents itself as an anti-imperialist movement":
Even the way they describe the[ir] revolution in Latin America, they leave out the religious component and they say it's actually just a social movement designed to protect natural resources. 'That's why we did the revolution in Iran because the UK was stealing all our oil.' And that is something in Latin America that resonates. When you talk about natural resources, when you talk about anti-imperialism, that is something that resonates.
Significantly, Iran has a Spanish language television station, called HispanTV, for pushing its propaganda in the region. "They have 24-hour broadcasting in Spanish in at least 16 countries in Latin America," said Humire.