Since our inception two years ago, we have been following the growing relationship between Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although most of the information available in the media states that this relationship started in 2005, it actually began as soon as Chavez started his mandate in 1999. In fact, on November 19, 2007, the Iranian reformist newspaper, E’temad-e-Melli, published an article claiming that relations between Tehran and Caracas began with the formation of the (Iranian) Reformist government when former President Muhammed Khatami visited Venezuela during his time in office. They became so close that in 2005 Chavez presented the Iranian leader with the highest decoration, the Order of the Liberator, as a symbol of their strong ties. The Venezuelan President then encouraged Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega to develop ties with Iranian President Ahmadinejad which they did. All four of these countries now have strong ties to Iran and have signed treaties in diverse areas of the economy. In exchange, Iran has received many benefits including a strong presence in the Hemisphere as well as support from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador against UN sanctions. Although insiders claim that Iran had no interest in developing relationships with Caracas, per se, Khatami’s regime was under international pressure to make new alliances among non-aligned countries. In the Middle East, Tehran had strong ties with Syria and Qatar, but it did not have any base from where they could actually threaten the United States and that is when Caracas became of interest. After learning of Chavez’s leadership in the Hemisphere, Tehran planned a strategy to establish itself in nations under the Venezuelan leader’s influence.
Manuchehr Honarmand was a witness to the developing Iranian-Venezuelan relationship. Mr. Honarmand is a Dutch citizen who used to write columns for the opposition daily Kayhan International, based in London. An Iranian dissident journalist, Honarmand decided to go to the US to expand the newspaper’s distribution. In December 2002 he visited South America for tourism and while in transit at the Caracas airport, waiting for a connecting flight, he was approached by two Iranians who asked him to provide information about himself. They were soon joined by two Venezuelan policemen.
After learning who he was, they handcuffed him and brought him to an office behind the transit area where he was beaten and forced to sign papers in Spanish, which he did not understand. A few hours later, Honarmand was thrown into a cell where he was told that he had been charged with drug trafficking.
Furthermore, he was refused contact with the Dutch Embassy. A Venezuelan National Guard report stated that his "drug – filled suitcase" was found in a Copa Airlines flight even though Honarmand had been traveling on KLM.
Mr. Honarmand’s luggage, money and papers were stolen and his Dutch passport was confiscated by the Venezuelan police. While he was in jail, he was able to contact Houshang Vaziri, his editor in chief, who promised to help but soon disappeared and was later found dead in Paris. Honarmand was freed in 2005, thanks to the Dutch government’s pressures. During his time in Caracas he spoke with discontented insiders of Chavez’s regime who informed him about the presence of Iranian officials in every sector of the economy and that they occupied high positions in the National Guard and the police. They also told Honarmand that Iranian officials are actually proselytizing in the poorest sectors of Venezuelan society to attract followers. However, what has many insiders worried is the possibility of radicals holding government positions. The recent designation of Tarek El – Aissami as Minster of Interior and Justice of Venezuela has raised concerns because of his connections with extremist groups.
Mr. El – Aissami is a Venezuelan national of Syrian descent who, before becoming Minster of Interior and Justice, occupied the position of Deputy Interior Minister for Public Security. His father, Carlos Aissami, is the head of the Venezuelan branch of the Iraqi Baath political party. Before the invasion of Iraq, he held a press conference in which he described himself as a Taliban and called Osama Bin Laden, "the great Mujahedeen, Sheik Osama bin Laden." Tarek’s great-uncle Shibli el-Aissami was a prominent ideologist and assistant to the party’s secretary general in Baghdad during the Saddam Hussein regime.
It was discovered that in 2003 El Aissami was appointed, along with another radical student leader from the University of the Andes in the city of Mérida, Hugo Cabezas, to head the country’s passport and naturalization service, the Onidex (Identification and Immigration Office). The choice came as a surprise precisely because of their ties with guerrilla movements at Universidad de Los Andes (ULA). Evidence has surfaced that during this time both men illegally issued Venezuelan passports and identity documents to members of Hezbollah and Hamas. Mr. Cabezas is now the government candidate for governor of the Andean state of Trujillo in elections due to be held on November 23, 2008 and is a founding member of Utopia, an armed group that has connections with the Bolivarian Liberation Front.
While a student leader at ULA, Aissami had political control of the university residences (dorms), which were used to hide stolen vehicles and conduct drug deals and had managed to get members of the guerillas into the dorms. According to reports, of the 1,122 people living in one of the University’s residences, only 387 were active students and more than 600 had nothing to do with the university.
Venezuelan investigative journalist, Patricia Poleo, who escaped Venezuela and currently lives in Miami says that Mr. Aissami together with others affiliated with Hezbollah, such as Lebanon-born Gahzi Nasserddine, currently the Business Liaison at the Venezuelan embassy in Damascus, and his brother, Ghasan Atef Salameh Nasserddi, are in charge of recruiting young Venezuelan Arabs affiliated with the ‘Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela’ or PSUV (Chavez’s Socialist Party), to be sent to South Lebanon for combat training in Hezbollah camps preparing them for ‘asymmetrical war’ against the United States. Once back in Venezuela, they are greeted by radical members of the Venezuelan Socialist Party affiliated with UNEFA (the university run by the Armed Forces) and the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela (Venezuelan Bolivarian University) and continue with their training in firearms, explosives and munitions. The training camps are located in the states of Monagas, Miranda, el Páramo, Falcon, Yaracuy, Yumare, and Trujillo and the districts of Maturin, Los Teques, El Jari, Churuguara and Sierra de San Luis. These groups and individuals are supervised by the Hezbollah Organization in Venezuela, along with al-Qaeda Iraqis currently living in the country and by the Palestinian Democratic Front, headed by Salid Ahmed Rahman, whose office is located in Caracas’s Central Park.
Since Chavez assumed the Presidency, Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda have used Venezuela as their bridge to other Latin American countries. There is information that a group of Iraqi activists belonging to al-Qaeda are currently in Caracas. Their names are: Mohammed Adnan Yasin, Falah Amin Taha and Muhi Alwan Mohammed Al Qaisi. They all arrived in Caracas with temporary visas granted and approved by the heads of Onidex (Cabezas and Aissami) and are believed to be very dangerous. They oversee the activities of these terrorist organizations in the tri – border region, and in Nicaragua and Argentina.
Other Hezbollah members in Venezuela with these same visas are: explosives expert Lebanese Abdul Ghani Suleiman Wanked, Hassan Nasrallah’s right-hand man.; Rada Ramel Assad, born in Barranquilla, Colombia and Abouchanab Daichoum Dani who is the organizer of the group.
We have to be very careful about what is going on in Venezuela. Independent media outlets have warned that the Chávez regime was issuing ID documents to Islamic radicals, enabling them to operate and move freely to other countries. It is extremely worrisome and dangerous to appoint a radical such as Aissami as the official in charge of issuing identity cards and passports but this serves the goals of the Iranian and Venezuelan presidents in their joint efforts to radicalize the region and build terrorist networks.
Other articles written by the staff of The America’s Report that can be referenced to in relation with this story are: "The Iranian threat already in the US’ backyard" (February 14, 2008 by Nicole M. Ferrand); "Latin America’s radical grassroots" (Parts 1, 2 and 3 by Luis Fleischman and Nicole M. Ferrand)
Nicole M. Ferrand is the editor of "The Americas Report" of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project. She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.
 Unholy alliance between Caracas and Tehran. January 13, 2008. Al Arabiya News.
 The Iran-Venezuela Connection. February 14, 2008. Memri.
 Al Arabiya – Ibid.
 Jihad in Venezuela. November 29, 2003. Jihad Watch.
 Memri – Ibid.