On April 8, 2019, Iranian airline Mahan Air launched direct commercial flights between Tehran and the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.1 Since October 2011, the privately-owned Iranian company has been subject to U.S. sanctions for its deep involvement in ferrying military and logistical aid to the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC-QF), to Middle Eastern flashpoints, and for supporting terrorist activity in general and Hizbullah’s activity in particular. Mahan Air has also engaged in the secret transfer of unregistered operatives while flouting security regulations.2 The flights even included transporting Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, who is under sanctions. This year, Germany and France barred the airline from their territory.
Reports emerged in 2010 that a regularly scheduled direct flight from Caracas to Syria and Iran flew Iranian Revolutionary Guards personnel to South America and Venezuelan uranium to Iran. Iran was assisting the South American country in prospecting for the radiation-producing ore. After the revelations, the flights stopped.3
In January 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Fars Air Qeshm, which has ties to Mahan Air and provides similar services to the Quds Force and to pro-Iranian militias (such as the Afghani Fatemiyoun Division and the Zaynabiyoun Brigade) that operate in Syria under its aegis.4 Fars Air Qeshm also flies the remains of fallen militiamen back to Iran. Below are “selfies” taken by Fatemiyoun militiamen flying on Iran’s national carrier civilian aircraft to Syria. Note the Iranian logos on the headrests.5
Reza Jafarzadeh, head of the Iran Civil Aviation Organization, confirmed the launching of the flights between Iran and Venezuela and added that the first flight carried a delegation of Foreign Ministry and Mahan airline personnel to Caracas to discuss the continued operation of the route.
Since the crisis between the United States and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro began to heat up, Iran has been expressing support for Maduro and criticizing calls to replace him with opposition leader Juan Guaido. The United States, most of the Latin American countries, and several European countries (more cautiously) recognize Guaido as the acting president of Venezuela, while Russia, China, and Turkey continue to support Maduro.
Iran’s Growing Involvement in Terror and Crime in South America
In a wide-ranging VOA interview during his three-day visit to South America in April 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized the launching of the flights to the Venezuelan capital in particular and Iran’s growing involvement in South America in general:
There’s no doubt Iranian money remains in South America, being used for malign purposes, supporting Hizbullah, supporting transnational criminal organizations, supporting efforts at terrorism throughout the region. The United States is working with our partners in this area to take down those networks, to take down that risk.
IRGC – you saw the other day there was an air flight straight, straight from Tehran to Caracas. This is Iran intervening in South America. That’s not in the best interest of the South American people, and the United States stands ready [to deal with this challenge]. We see Iran for what it is, the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. That’s a global threat, and we’re prepared to push back against it, not only in the Middle East but in South America and wherever we find that threat present.6
Deputy IRGC Commander and former IRGC Navy (IRGCN) Commander (2010-2018) Ali Fadavi fired back, saying that “the American secretary of state, in his despair, expressed rage over the direct flight to Caracas, which is a result of Iran’s power.” Fadavi was speaking at a ceremony on April 15, 2019, at the Islamic Azad University (IAU) in Tehran. Held under the slogan, “I am a Guard too,” it was a response to Washington’s decision to impose sanctions on the IRGC.
Ali Akbar Velayati, the IAU’s Head of the Founding Council and Board of Trustees, and Leader Khamenei’s international affairs adviser, also attended the ceremony.
Fadavi stated that the power of the United States in the world is waning. “In the early years after the (1979) victory of the Islamic Revolution, no country dared to oppose the U.S.-led global hegemony, but today we see that very small countries openly oppose the United States in the meetings of the UN Security Council.” In this regard, Fadavi (IRGCN commander at the time) gave the example of the IRGCN seizing two U.S. Navy (riverine command) boats in November 2016 after they entered Iranian territorial waters (following navigational errors). Their crew laid down their arms and surrendered after realizing that they were facing the IRGCN.7 After the arrest, Iran’s media outlets published pictures of the humiliated sailors.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry’s newly-appointed spokesman, Sayyed Abbas Musawi, characterized Pompeo’s words about Iran’s interference in Venezuela’s domestic affairs as “ridiculous.” He said the United States was trying to turn South America into its backyard as in the 19th century, but the people of South America had awakened and were not prepared to turn the clock back. Musawi said Iran had sent a team of experts to Venezuela to help it contend with its electricity and water crises. He accused the United States of placing Venezuelans before a cruel choice of “revolting against the legitimate regime or starving” and said this constituted interference in domestic affairs. Accompanied by Venezuela’s Vice-President Delcy Rodriguez, the Iranian delegation visited a power plant and met workers there who were attempting to reactivate the national electricity grid.
The recent crisis in Venezuela – and the common fate of two countries coping with harsh U.S. sanctions – have again raised Iran’s South American activity to the forefront. Iranian-Venezuelan relations took off and flourished during the tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president from 2005 to 2013, and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez (who died in March 2013). The glue between the two countries is still a common anti-American ideology and policy and a desire to offer a “suitable, revolutionary, worldwide alternative to American imperialism.”
Iran, which sees itself as besieged and threatened by the United States and its Middle Eastern allies, is using its ties with Venezuela to expand its activity and influence in Latin America (among other things, by means of Hizbullah) and to entrench its military, intelligence, narcoterrorist, diplomatic, economic, and religious presence and influence in the region. Iran’s activity in the United States’ “backyard” is intended to pose a challenge and a counterweight to Washington’s intensifying efforts against Iran in the regional (missile program, subversion, terror) and international (nuclear program) arenas.
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5 Iran Caught Shipping Soldiers to Syria on Commercial Flights in Violation of Nuclear Deal, http://www.iranobserver.org/iran-caught-shipping-soldiers-to-syria-on-commercial-flights-in-violation-of-nuclear-deal/