Fears, doubts over Iran's ties in South America

Confidential U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show American diplomats have been worried about Iran's growing influence in Latin America but believe fears of Venezuela sending uranium to aid Tehran's nuclear program are likely baseless.

The documents posted online this week reveal that as U.S. diplomats have investigated President Hugo Chavez's ties to nations including Iran and Russia, they have sometimes found more bluster than substance in both Chavez's ambitions and his critics' claims of a looming international threat.

In one cable on June 11, 2009, the U.S. Embassy said Venezuela is "incapable of substantive nuclear cooperation with Iran/Russia." The document cited an unidentified nuclear scientist who said Venezuela's agreement with Russia to start a nuclear program "is pure political theater" and that "there is no exploration or exploitation of uranium, ongoing or planned, in Venezuela."

"Although rumors that Venezuela is providing Iran ... uranium may help burnish the government's revolutionary credentials, there seems to be little basis in reality to the claims," said the document released Tuesday.

"It is highly unlikely that Venezuela is providing Venezuelan uranium to third countries," said the report, which added that American diplomats in Bolivia drew similar conclusions.

Chavez has built a close relationship with Iranian leaders based on a shared anti-U.S. stance, and Iran has helped set up factories to assemble tractors, cars and bicycles in Venezuela.

Iran has also begun to build closer ties with Venezuelan allies Bolivia and Ecuador, but most of their pledges for boosting trade and joint projects have yet to be realized.

In his first visit to Bolivia in 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered the country up to $1 billion in credit, none of which has been delivered. At this point, Iran's assistance has amounted to the building of a dairy and a hospital.

Ecuador has begun sending bananas to Iran and expressed an interest in buying farming equipment.

Bolivian President Evo Morales signed documents pledging to buy military planes and helicopters during an October visit to Tehran, and Iran said it would help Bolivia manufacture lithium-ion batteries, among other projects.

The Bolivian government said Iran signaled its readiness to help it develop nuclear energy for peaceful uses. But no action has been taken, and Morales' spokesman Ivan Canelas told reporters Thursday that no pact yet exists under which Iran would mine uranium in Bolivia.

Chavez vehemently defends Iran's nuclear program, saying the U.S. is falsely accusing Tehran of developing atomic weapons.

Suspicions about Iran's intentions have persisted among Chavez critics, while the leftist leader has pursued plans to build a reactor with help from Russia — under an agreement specifying that the plant will be for peaceful energy uses only.

Chavez's government said in October 2009 that an aerial survey of its mineral deposits — carried out with support from Iran — detected uranium deposits. However, there has been no sign since that any mining operation is in the works.

A confidential U.S. Embassy cable on Oct. 7, 2009, concluded "there does not appear to be a project underway to develop" uranium deposits. The document, released Wednesday by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, noted that Venezuela also does not have "trained scientists to support the development of a nuclear program."

An earlier report on Jan. 8, 2009, said several nuclear physicists consulted by diplomats believed Chavez's talk of pursuing a nuclear energy program was "hot air."

Chavez this year finalized his agreement for Russia to help build a reactor in Venezuela. It's unclear how much Venezuela will spend, or how many years it could take.

Chavez has made no secret of his multibillion-dollar arms deals with Russia, yet he has said less about military cooperation with Iran — and the possibility of covert Iranian operations in South America has raised fears among American diplomats.

A 2006 secret cable said diplomats had learned that Venezuela sought help from Iran in establishing its military reserves, and that a small number of Iranian soldiers were said to be in the country training reservists.

The document also said officials believed Venezuela was "seeking lethal armament from Iran such as rockets and other explosive material." Other leaked documents did not mention whether any such rockets were ever delivered.

The 2006 report said Venezuela's support for Iran "is of grave concern."

Iran has also faced accusations of using Venezuela's banking system to skirt U.N. and U.S. sanctions over its nuclear program.

In 2008, U.S. authorities imposed new sanctions on an Iran-owned bank in Caracas, Banco Internacional de Desarrollo, accusing it of providing financial services in support of Iran's weapons program.

Chavez, who has visited Iran nine times during his presidency, has often ridiculed the idea of Venezuela and Iran teaming up as an "axis of evil," and has said Washington tries to discredit leaders who stand up to the U.S.

In other documents released this week, American diplomats dissected Venezuela's relationship with Cuba and said the island's spies are deeply involved in the country and have direct access to Chavez.

"The gringos are scared about the presence of Cubans here," Chavez said with a laugh in a television appearance Thursday night. "All of that is coming out, the dirty reports and dirty war of Yankee embassies all over the world."


Associated Press writers Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.