CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela is free to sell its 21 U.S.-made jet fighters to any country it wishes, including Iran, because the United States has violated a contract by refusing to sell replacement parts for the planes, Venezuela's vice president said Friday.
When asked by a reporter if Venezuela would be willing to sell the F-16 fighters to Iran, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said: "To whomever. What the United States does not have the right to do is suspend the supply (of replacement parts) after there's a contract and agreement."
The U.S. State Department has said Venezuela must get Washington's approval on any sale of the F-16s. "There are contractual obligations that prohibit Venezuela from selling the F-16s to another country without the permission of the United States," U.S. Embassy spokesman Brian Penn said.
Washington announced this week it is imposing a ban on arms sales to President Hugo Chavez's government, which the U.S. has accused of failing to cooperate in counterterrorism efforts. Chavez calls that a ridiculous claim, and has warned the U.S. is trying to disarm his leftist government because it wants to overthrow him.
Gen. Alberto Muller, a Chavez adviser, said in response to the ban that he had recommended Venezuela consider selling its fleet of 21 F-16s to another country, possibly Iran. But Defense Minister Orlando Maniglia later said that no sale was in the works and that Chavez had yet to decide what to do with the planes.
Muller told The Associated Press on Friday that the military was considering buying about 24 Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighters to replace the F-16s. He said Venezuelan pilots have already traveled to Russia to test out Russian warplanes.
Muller said Venezuela is also considering buying anti-aircraft missiles and cannons from Russia.
His comments came after the Russian Interfax news service quoted Venezuelan Ambassador to Moscow Alexis Navarro Rojas as saying Venezuela is awaiting talks on buying new jet fighters and that Chavez is seeking to visit Russia in the coming months.
If completed, a deal for warplanes would be the latest in a series of Venezuelan arms purchases from Russia. Caracas is buying 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles — despite Washington's objections — and last month, a top army commander said the military plans to eventually buy 33 Russian helicopters.
With the U.S. Navy holding training exercises in the Caribbean, Venezuela held its own maneuvers this week along its coast, practicing to repel a hypothetical U.S. attack using tanks and new Russian helicopters.
Three of the helicopters were deployed in the exercises near oil refineries in the northwestern state of Falcon on Wednesday, the state-run Bolivarian News Agency reported. It said some 4,000 people, including soldiers and civilians, participated.
Chavez has previously warned he could share the F-16s with Cuba and China. Venezuela also may invite scientists from countries like Russia, Iran or China to help upgrade and maintain the jet fighters, Muller said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday that the U.S. move to curtail weapons sales would not affect exports of defense equipment or spare parts "under existing licenses and authorizations."
"The most recent licenses for spare parts maintenance on the F-16s were done (in) 2005," McCormack said. "So it's conceivable that there could be spare parts maintenance on the F-16s up and through 2009."