Miami Hitjob Only the Latest Indication of Venezuela-Iran Collaboration

Earlier this month, the FBI in Miami issued a most-wanted notice for an Iranian intelligence officer, Majid Farahani, tasked with arranging the assassination of former USG officials involved in the 2020 decision to kill IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.  One of the intriguing facets about this incident is that Farahani, who remains at-large, “travels frequently to Venezuela.”

That Caracas has likely served as a staging-post for Iranian terror plots only underscores the Maduro regime’s mounting position as Iran’s biggest supporter in the Western Hemisphere—a partnership built on a shared anti-American ideology.  For over two decades, Tehran and Caracas have collaborated on a wide spectrum of areas—notably in domestic security, energy, and banking—culminating in a 20 year cooperation agreement signed in June 2022.

Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), a U.S.-sanctioned entity, colludes with Compania Anonima Venezolana de Industria Militares (CAVIM), Venezuela’s state-run weapons manufacturer, in order to procure funding from state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela’s (PDVSA) oil sales to China.

MODAFL also controls Megasis, an Iranian supermarket chain that has set up shop in Venezuela. This is no ordinary Walmart, and Iran’s ambassador to Caracas has said that Megasis parent company, Ekta, relies on the same cargo vessels that ship Iranian gasoline to Venezuela, most of which are owned by the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC). NITC is sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury pursuant to counterterrorism authorities for its support to the IRGC-Quds Force.

Megasis also works with Maduro’s food program, whose executive, Alex Saab, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2019. The sanctions notice described him as “a profiteer orchestrating a vast corruption network that… significantly profit[s] from food imports and distribution in Venezuela.” Saab was apprehended in Cape Verde in 2020 and extradited to the U.S. but recently repatriated to Venezuela as part of a prisoner exchange.

Meanwhile, the IRGC has deployed to train elements of Maduro’s security forces. In April 2009, months before the Green Movement in Iran, senior commanders in the IRGC Basij arrived in Caracas. Subsequently, the Basij trained pro-Maduro militias in its own, brutal image.  Most recently, the Quds Force—the IRGC’s elite overseas corps—trained Maduro’s National Guard to suppress the 2019 opposition movement which was at the time threatening to topple Maduro.

Cooperation in energy took shape in the wake of the U.S. sanctioning of PDVSA in early 2019, with the emergence of a barter system to avoid use of the dollar. By early 2020, Venezuela was loading hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold onto planes headed for Iran to pay for its assistance restoring Venezuela’s gas refineries. By May, Iran had completed its first delivery of 1.5 million barrels of gasoline to Venezuela. In 2023, as detailed in research supplied by United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), Iran supplied over 12 million barrels of crude oil and gas condensate to Venezuela in exchange for delivery of roughly the same volume of fuel oil cargo to Iran.

Of course, bankrolling much of these activities are Iran’s Venezuela-based banks, Banco Internacional de Desarrollo (BID) and the Iran-Venezuela Bi-National Bank. The U.S. Treasury first sanctioned BID in 2008 pursuant to Executive Order (EO) 13382, a counterproliferation authority, for “providing or attempting to provide financial services to MODAFL,” the executive branch organ tasked with funding Iran’s defense industrial base and also coordinating logistical support for the IRGC.

As part of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA in 2018, sanctions were reimposed on Iran’s critical banking infrastructure in the same year, including on Iran-Venezuela Bi-National Bank and BID. The sanctions against BID were reimposed pursuant to counterterrorism EO 13224, given that the bank is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI). The U.S. Treasury noted that EDBI is affiliated with Mir Business Bank, a subsidiary of Iran’s Bank Melli, sanctioned under counterterrorism and counterproliferation authorities. At the same time, the U.S. Treasury also sanctioned the Iran-Venezuela Bi-National Bank, which EDBI and Banco Industrial de Venezuela jointly own. The binational bank likely facilitated BID’s incorporation in 2007.

What can be done? 

The U.S. should impose costs on the Venezuelan and Iranian actors responsible for domestic security cooperation. The model for such actions can be seen in the Trump administration’s targeting of Tareck El-Aissami, the former vice president of Venezuela who was in charge of domestic security and the pro-Maduro militias trained by the Basij. Later, the Hezbollah-linked Aissami became oil minister—reportedly at Iran’s request. Aissami was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2017 and indicted by the Department of Justice in 2019, underscoring key economic and legal measures for preventing Iran from entering the Western Hemisphere.   

The IRGC’s deployment in the Western Hemisphere, along with its offshoot Hezbollah and possibly other ‘Axis of Resistance’ terrorist groups, must be prevented in accordance with the Monroe Doctrine, which was invoked in 1865 laying out the U.S. view that foreign powers’ interference in the Western Hemisphere is contrary to vital national security interests.

In the energy sector, the U.S. should be increasing costs imposed on all facilitators of the illicit Iranian-Venezuelan barter system. If the U.S. can compel these actors—ranging from owners/operators to insurance companies to classification societies—to strip their services, Iran’s fleet will reduce in size as the vessels will no longer be seaworthy. If and when costs are imposed on the complicit actors, others will be less likely to work with the Iranians and Venezuelans in order to avoid the risk of facing similar cost imposition.

Financial institutions outside U.S. jurisdiction must be penalized for engaging in transactions with “specific, troubling Iran-linked individuals and entities,” such as the Iran-Venezuela Bi-National Bank and BID. The U.S. Treasury should restrict Foreign Financial Institutions (FFIs) determined to have engaged in these transactions from the U.S. financial system in accordance with the Iran Financial Sanctions Regulations (IFSR), which OFAC issued in 2010 as part of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA).

As the Miami plot amply shows, the Islamic Republic’s efforts to kill Americans are not confined to the Middle East. Venezuela is a secure beachhead in the center of the Western Hemisphere for Iranian influence, its ideological pursuits, and for IRGC and Hezbollah operations against the U.S. With ongoing concerns over who precisely is entering the U.S. via its the southern border, these threats warrant close and persistent attention. Venezuela’s transformation into a staging-post for Iranian terror and assassination plots must be prevented.

Jerry Canto is an analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He can be followed on X @JerryCanto2.