Venezuela Defense Minister Backs off Fighter Jet Sale to Iran

Venezuela's defense minister said Tuesday that there are no immediate plans to sell U.S.-made fighter jets despite a dispute over replacement parts — backing away from one general's statement that the planes could go to Iran.

Defense Minister Adm. Orlando Maniglia said a sale of the 21 F-16s wasn't in the works and President Hugo Chavez "has not given any order" as to what to do with the aircraft.

Gen. Alberto Muller, an adviser to Chavez, said earlier he had recommended to the defense ministry that Venezuela consider selling its F-16s after the U.S. announced a ban on arms sales to the South American country.

Muller said he thought it worthwhile to consider "the feasibility of a negotiation with Iran for the sale of those planes."

But Maniglia said that was Muller's personal opinion only and that he "is not a spokesman of the armed forces."

The Iranian Embassy in Caracas said no deal involving warplanes had been proposed.

The defense minister also said the United States has violated a contract by refusing to sell Venezuela replacement parts for its jets, even after Venezuela paid for those parts.

"I've honestly grown tired of asking for replacement parts for the F-16s," Maniglia said at a news conference. "I've got my list. We've paid. We have money deposited in the United States."

He claimed that Washington has kept U.S., Israeli and South Korean firms from shipping parts.

U.S. officials did not immediately respond to the new accusation that the parts were already paid for, but they have previously said they are complying with the F-16 sale contract.

U.S. officials say the 1982 contract does not require them to supply parts indefinitely or to upgrade the planes. They say they have provided parts for ejector seats in recent months.

But Chavez has warned he could share the U.S.-made F-16s with Cuba and China — and look into buying new jets from Russia or China — due to Washington's reluctance to sell needed parts.

The U.S. State Department said Tuesday that Washington would have to sign off on any sale of the F-16s — a possibility that spokesman Sean McCormack suggested was highly unlikely.

The State Department announced the ban on arms sales Monday, saying it came in response to a lack of support by Venezuela for counterterrorism efforts. It cited Venezuela's close relations with Iran and Cuba, both of which the U.S. deems state sponsors of terrorism.

Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said the U.S. ban — which becomes effective for one year starting Oct. 1 — "is nothing new" since the U.S. already effectively was blocking defense deals.

The arms embargo signals further deterioration in relations with Venezuela, a leading supplier of oil to the United States. But Venezuela is moving ahead with various defense deals despite the U.S. ban, buying helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles from Russia.

Maniglia said the U.S. argument that Venezuela isn't cooperating in counterdrug and counterterror efforts is incoherent because Washington is the one unwilling to help maintain patrol planes.