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Shai Baitel Headshot

A Bad Joke's Kernel of Truth

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"That hill [in front of Venezuela's Presidential Miraflores Palace] will open up and a big atomic bomb will come out."

-President Hugo Chavez, in company of visiting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Caracas, January 9, 2012

And both presidents laughed heartily. Chavez continued, that "[t]he imperialist spokesmen say ... Ahmadinejad and I are going into the Miraflores basement now to set our sights on Washington and launch cannons and missiles. ... It's laughable." The only thing that is laughable, however, is that nobody, really nobody thought that Miraflores itself was a current or future missile base. But everybody should take serious the threat that the Iranian-Venezuelan axis poses to the United States and its allies.

At a time when, despite economic woes everywhere, elections in the United States, and Syrian slaughter, the world's proverbial mind is surprisingly, and rightly focused on the Iranian nuclear threat it is important to not lose sight of that country's dealings in Latin America. Its activities there serve a multitude of purposes. None of them is benign.

The trip to Latin America at the beginning of January came at a time of political turmoil for Ahmadinejad, at home and abroad. At home the uproar after the last elections, the early strength of the Green Movement and the government's brutal crackdown have not been forgotten. The aggravating factor is now the increasing economic hardship of ordinary Iranians, a fallout of the increasing international sanctions, with negative results, particularly a devalued Iranian rial in the wake of the United States targeting Iran's Central Bank. Abroad there is a surprising, albeit belated, international resolve to increase the pressure on Iran through unilateral and multilateral sanctions.

There is no better way to counter this international isolation, project diplomatic strength and, simultaneously sign valuable trade agreements than by visiting the best friends in the western hemisphere, namely the radical Marxist allies in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Cuba. Evo Morales' Bolivia was not on the schedule, however, and Brazil's Dilma Rousseff did not invite him, steering her country away from the anti-American course of her predecessor Lula da Silva.

For years now, Iran's relations with Venezuela have blossomed. With bilateral trade exceeding $40 billion, the two regimes are closely aligned, economically and ideologically. Iran has reportedly entered into more than 150 energy, development, commercial, and financial agreements with Venezuela. There are mysterious flights between both countries that do not accept open bookings. These are widely believed to not only transport illicit goods and weaponry but also carry Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers and, with the planes refueling in Damascus, also Hezbollah figures.

That such a stopover connects Iran with Syria and Venezuela is a wonderful metaphor. Three partners-in-crime, figuratively, and in the true sense. It is in Iran's immense interest to preserve the regime of Bashar Asad in Syria, as it is not only a friend but like Venezuela, a hub for its dangerous activities. It was from Syria that the Iran undermined the American efforts during the Iraq War, supplies Hezbollah in Lebanon with weapons directed against Israel, and further attacked the Jewish State through its support of Hamas. We are witnessing a shift on the Hamas front but Iran, alongside Russia, will not give up this important, strategic regime that served them so well.

At the same time the Venezuelan military cooperation continues under the proverbial radar screen. According to a German report, both countries agreed in 2010 on the establishment of a jointly operated military base in Venezuela, as well as on the joint development of ground-to-ground missiles. The regime in Caracas has also agreed on allowing a joint military base where Iranian Shihab 3 and Scud missiles of lesser range will be deployed. Venezuela is indeed an Iranian base, from where Iran is able to strike, militarily and through terrorism via its proxies, at the United States.

Moreover, the country is also a main supplier of uranium for Iran's nuclear program. In addition, both countries are jointly conducting explorations in remote areas near the Guyanese border for additional uranium deposits. That, of course, circumvents United Nations (UN) and U.S. sanctions meant to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capabilities.

Ideologically, of course, both are opposed to the United States. Chavez went so far as to threaten to suspend crude oil exports to the United States in case of an attack on Iran. In addition, over the course of several years, Iran has created a base for conventional and nuclear terrorism in Venezuela. IRGC has an increased presence and is reportedly involved in the construction of intermediate-range missile launch pads there.

Hezbollah, Iran's "terrorist subcontractor," created cells with an extensive organizational and logistics network throughout Latin America. The group's aim at waging asymmetric warfare or terror overlaps here with the aim to capitalize on the regional cocaine trade to fund its activities. It is worrisome that this Islamist narco-terrorism has reached our shores as well, with such cells existing in the United States and other Western countries. It should not be a surprise that, in addition to Hezbollah, also FARC and Al Qaeda, are operating training camps and networks of mutual assistance in Venezuela and beyond.

Even in the area of 'soft power,' Iran moves to increase its footprint in the Americas. In January, Iran launched 'Hispan TV,' a Spanish-language channel airing from the Middle East with a 24/7 program of news, documentaries, movies, and Iranian films. This fits neatly in Tehran's efforts to reach out to increase its influence.

With its partner Venezuela, Iran has created a new front against its declared enemies. Already an expert at long-distance warfare and terrorism -- Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas come to mind -- this is a great success. As an important analyst put it, Iran is rightly convinced that the Western Hemisphere is an increasingly important arena where it can wield its influence -- and diminish America's.

So Chavez's joke about a potential Iranian-Venezuelan aggression against the West was none. It is the current state of affairs. We all need to be aware of this reality. Iran already has a negative influence in the Middle East and now proves that it is a player in the Western Hemisphere as well. The regime's dangerous hardware and terrorism proxies are the same in both places. Geographically, Iran may be far away from the Americas but its growing presence in Venezuela is a serious danger. It is not a joke.

A version of this article appeared in the New York Daily News.