The Obama administration’s recent announcement of targeted sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company for illicit dealings with Iran is a hopeful sign that the executive branch is heeding warnings about Hugo Chávez’s reckless support for Iran’s strategy to sustain its illegal nuclear program and to sow terrorism on the U.S. doorstep. If U.S. authorities are really getting serious about confronting this threat they should focus attention on Conviasa, Chávez’s government-run airline that ferries terrorists and weapons to our own neighborhood.
There is much to investigate. It is widely-known that Conviasa operates regular flights between Caracas, Teheran, and Damascus. The flight to Iran was inaugurated in 2004, and a stop in Beirut will be added soon.
That a South American airline would choose such destinations for routine service may seem peculiar, but it is a logical part of Chávez’s anti-American campaign and provocative alliances with Iran, Syria, Libya, and a host of Middle Eastern terrorist groups.
We can only guess who and what are aboard these flights, because passengers and cargo remain in the shadows. Upon arrival in Caracas, according to eye-witnesses, passengers are not subject to immigration controls, and many pass through VIP facilities used by Chavez and visiting dignitaries. Cargo is routinely handled by employees of the Iranian embassy and is not subject to customs inspection.
Citing Western intelligence reports, La Stampa of Italy reports that the bulk of the passengers are made up of intelligence officials and military officers. It also said the flights are designed to move sensitive military matériel between Venezuela, Iran, and Syria, such as components for missile systems and spare parts for U.S.-made aircraft.
What we do know about several Conviasa passengers is very troubling, indeed. Abdul Kadir is one of four extremists arrested in June 2007 for plotting to detonate fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Kadir was arrested in Trinidad on his way to Venezuela, where he was planning to depart for Iran on the infamous Conviasa flight. These conspirators vowed to “fight it out, kill who you could kill, and go back to Allah,” hoping that a massacre and inferno at JFK would traumatize the United States and devastate its economy. Instead, thanks to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of New York, these terrorists are facing U.S. justice.
Another Conviasa “frequent flier” is Mohsen Rabbani, an Iranian “diplomat” wanted for his role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. According to U.S. investigators, before his arrest the JFK plotter Kadir met with Rabbani in Iran. Brazilian intelligence officials quoted in a cover story in the prestigious Brazilian publication, Veja, say that Rabbani was in Brazil as recently as last September, where he recruited at least 20 young people in Sao Paulo and nearby states to undergo “religious training” in Iran. Brazilian investigators claim that Rabbani flew from Teheran to Caracas aboard Conviasa – which they have dubbed “Aero-Terror” – and entered Brazil illegally from Venezuela using false identification.
The Conviasa service is not profitable – a secret budget obtained from Venezuela’s Ministry of Industry and Mines put the losses at $30 million from 2007-09 – but the flights serve other purposes. For example, according to documents obtained from sources within the Venezuelan government, Hezbollah recruits from throughout South America travel to Iran on Conviasa.
Last September, several persons of Lebanese background, carrying Venezuelan passports, and claiming to be associated with Hezbollah, were detained in Beirut with 50 kilos of cocaine; authorities report that these smugglers flew Conviasa from Caracas to Damascus and were arrested when they arrived in Lebanon.
Also, according to sources, Conviasa flights carry materials from Teheran to support several clandestine Iranian construction projects in Venezuela.
It is clear that the Conviasa flight is a critical tool for Iran and Venezuela and their allies among terrorists and drug traffickers. And the administration has the authority to act now to pre-empt this growing menace. Under Executive Order 13324, either the Departments of State or Treasury can designate Conviasa as an entity supporting terrorism through its services to suspect individuals. Preventing Conviasa from using dollar-denominated transactions would effectively ground “Aero-Terror;” most international transactions are conducted in U.S. dollars, and most responsible foreign banks would never risk their broader access to the U.S. financial system over a small company like Conviasa.
The success of U.S. counter-terrorism policy rests in knocking down threats and foiling plots before they are hatched. Iran has demonstrated that it has the will to bring its brand of terror to the Western Hemisphere, and Hugo Chavez is offering the way. There is no excuse for inaction.
Roger F. Noriega was Ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients, and contributes to interamericansecuritywatch.com.