By John Gehrke
Source: Washington Examiner
Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro is partnering with Iran to establish a beachhead for terrorist groups in the Western Hemisphere, Vice President Mike Pence warned Tuesday.
“The Iranian regime has been working with Venezuela’s corrupt dictatorship to establish a safe haven for its terrorist proxies,” Pence said in an address before the Council of the Americas.
Maduro loyalists deny that Hezbollah, the preeminent terrorist subsidiary of Iran, has a presence in Venezuela, even though the regime’s top diplomat traveled to Beirut to meet with a Hezbollah leader last month. U.S. officials have contradicted those denials for years, but Pence’s State Department speech intensified the allegations just days after the dictator withstood an opposition-led call for a military uprising to overthrow the regime.
“Venezuela is a failed state,” Pence said. “And as history teaches, failed states know no boundaries. Drug traffickers, criminal gangs, terrorist groups seeking to destabilize the region and profit from the misery of the Venezuelan people every day.”
Maduro has held onto power using a variety of outside forces. He has relied on local gangs to crack down on protesters when the Venezuelan military might refuse to do so. Foreign governments, chiefly Cuba but also Russia, have fortified the regime’s internal security and defenses.
Pence discussed the Iranian connection in his speech, citing last month’s “very public launch of direct air service between Caracas and Tehran by Mahan Air, a blacklisted airline controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which President Trump recently designated as a terrorist organization.”
The vice president also denounced Maduro confidant and cabinet member Tareck El Aissami, who has been sanctioned by the United States as a drug kingpin and the European Union as a human rights violator. Pence described him as “a drug runner and a money launderer who partners with terrorist networks to bring Iran-backed terrorists into the country.” That picture lines up with a recently leaked regime dossier.
“Hezbollah is working to extend its dangerous network throughout Venezuela, and from there, throughout our hemisphere,” Pence concluded.
Pence’s remarks united the administration’s two major foreign policy initiatives. President Trump’s team regards Venezuela as the most pressing crisis in the Western Hemisphere, and it’s implementing a raft of sanctions on Iran after exiting the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated by President Barack Obama’s administration. Latin American partners have also warned of Iran’s emergence in the region, as recently as last week at the Organization of American States.
“We know that China, Iran, and others are trying very hard to extend their presence in the regime,” Gonzalo Koncke, a top OAS official, said during a hearing on foreign interference in Venezuela. “They are exploiting the vast natural resources of Venezuela and are, in fact, having a field day thousands, millions of kilometers from their own countries.”
Those external allies helped Maduro overcome an attempted overthrow by Juan Guaidó, the opposition lawmaker the United States and other Western governments recognized in January as the interim president of Venezuela. Pence responded to that setback by announcing new sanctions on regime officials who remain loyal to Maduro while touting that “the United States of America is removing all sanctions” on a senior Venezuelan intelligence official who defected during the abortive uprising last week.
“The struggle in Venezuela is the struggle between dictatorship and democracy,” Pence said Tuesday. “Nicolás Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power, and Nicolás Maduro must go.”