Hugo Chavez in the U.S. Crosshairs

Hugo Chavez in the U.S. Crosshairs

Finally, Hugo Chavez is being held accountable for his reckless efforts to aid and abet Iran’s illegal pursuit of a nuclear capability and evasion of international sanctions. This week, the Obama administration announced it was imposing sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA and the Venezuelan Military Industries Company CAVIM for their illicit dealings with Iran. The sanctions are admittedly minimal, but one hopes they signal a new vigor on the part of the administration towards further exposing and countering the nefarious Venezuelan-Iran axis.

What began a few years ago as a joint exercise in noisy anti-American sloganeering between Chavez and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has morphed into a deep-seated economic and military relationship running into the tens of billions of dollars that has made Venezuela one of Iran’s most important international allies, and, as Ahmadinejad sees it, a key to his regime’s survival.

As my colleague former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega has revealed (here and here, Chavez has helped to facilitate Iran’s development of a nuclear capability by helping it obtain uranium and blunt sanctions by providing it access to Venezuela’s banking system. At the same time, Chavez has hosted senior leaders of such terrorist groups as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Venezuela to discuss ways of boosting mutual support, including a more robust presence in the Western Hemisphere for these groups.

These dangerous developments pose direct threats to U.S. security interests and demand a more fulsome response on the part of U.S. policymakers. Again, one hopes that this week’s announcement signals just such a campaign of stepped-up pressure on Iran and those doing its bidding. As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, President Obama signed an executive order giving the departments of State and Treasury more flexibility in targeting companies involved in Iran’s energy sector, just as Congress is preparing legislation that would stiffen sanctions against Iran’s energy sector and its nuclear program.

As one U.S. official told the Journal, Iran’s intransigence left the U.S. "no choice but to step up pressure."

Indeed, it is imperative that U.S. investigators continue to strip away the layers of the Venezuelan-Iranian axis to examine what other forms of criminality are taking place, such as money laundering and Venezuelan-Hezbollah complicity in drug trafficking, in addition to Venezuelan-Iran military cooperation. (Germany’s Die Welt reported this month that Iran is planning to build medium-range missile bases in Venezuela, astride Panama Canal shipping lanes.)

Again, in and of themselves, the announced sanctions will have little practical impact on Chavez’s pocketbook. For example, they have no impact on Citgo, PDVSA’s U.S. subsidiary, or on Venezuelan oil exports to the U.S. (ironically Chavez’s economic lifeline). Certainly, the cost of doing business for PDVSA just went up, as its licit international partners and the financial markets will exact a premium for its damaged brand name, but that is not what is most important here.

The Obama administration has just upped the ante in a game being played for the highest stakes. It cannot allow Hugo Chavez to bluff his way out.