Military Assets

Iran and Venezuela have a long history of military cooperation, resulting in the transfer of weapons systems and production capabilities from Iran to Venezuela. Iran today has one of the world’s most advanced drone programs and an improving ballistic missile program, despite years of international sanctions and export controls meant to prevent it from obtaining military supplies and dual-use technology. Iran has shipped drones, missiles, and other weapons to Venezuela.

In the Chávez era, Iran began assisting Venezuela in the production of drones, ostensibly for defensive purposes only. Iran began transferring drone technology to Venezuela as early as 2001 when Khatami was in power in Iran. In 2012, Chávez confirmed that his country Venezuela was producing drones in Venezuela with assistance from Iran, Russia, and China. By 2013, the Venezuelan air force had over a dozen Iranian-made Mohajer-2 surveillance drones that they were reportedly using to monitor drug traffickers, patrol the border, and protect oil fields. Venezuelan state-run weapons manufacturer, Compañía Anónima Venezolana de Industrias Militares (CAVIM), produced some of these, and later  fitted them with bombs.

While the early drone shipments were not armed, Iran began transferring more advanced attack drones as the military partnership between Iran and Venezuela deepened. Only one month after the U.N. arms embargo against Iran expired in October 2020, Iranian media reported that Iran had begun shipping the Mohajer-6—which has an air-to-ground strike capability—to Venezuela. In February 2022, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz alleged that Iran provided Venezuela with precision-guided missiles for the Mohajer-6.

Venezuela-Iran military cooperation does not only involve the transfer of drones and technical expertise to Venezuela. In 2006, reports emerged that Venezuela was considering selling U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to Iran in retaliation for an American arms embargo against Venezuela. In 2008, the U.S. Department of State levied sanctions against CAVIM, pursuant to the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, for allegedly transferring technology to Iran that could be used to develop weapons systems. In 2010, after a deal between Russia and Iran for Russia’s S-300 air defense missile system fell through because of U.N. sanctions, Venezuela offered to transfer the S-300 system to Iran. However, Iran did not act on the offer.

Iran and Venezuela’s arms industries have cooperated since at least 2009 when the two countries reportedly agreed to a secretive military program, the details of which remain hidden, involving CAVIM and MODAFL. The CAVIM-MODAFL collaboration has, over the years, come to resemble a joint military-industrial complex that allegedly taps funds from PDVSA’s transactions with China for opaque military projects. Additionally, CAVIM used the PDVSA and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL) to shield its involvement in “military transfers.” The former commander of CAVIM, General Aref Richany Jiménez, served concurrently as the director of PDVSA’s external relations department. CAVIM is based in Maracay, Venezuela, where Iran has worked on drone technologies and missile-related items. Experts believe that drone facilities may be dual-purposed. A large explosion at one of them in 2011 suggests that offensive capabilities were being produced there.

Finally, Iran is capable of providing Venezuela with weapons besides drones. Most alarmingly, Iran and Venezuela have engaged in discussions regarding Iranian missiles. In 2010, the German newspaper Die Welt reported on an agreement between President Chávez and President Ahmadinejad in which Venezuela would allow Iran to construct a medium-range missile base on Venezuelan soil. The agreement, which the two regimes kept secret, would allow for the establishment of a jointly operated missile base and the joint development of surface-to-surface missiles. The Die Welt report said IRGC officials would operate the base alongside Venezuelan missile experts.

In 2020, ten years after the Die Welt report, Columbian President Iván Duque accused Venezuela, which had previously threatened to invade Colombia, of purchasing medium- and long-range missiles from Iran. These alleged sales were all the more concerning given that the U.N. arms embargo against Iran was set to expire in months. The accusations seemed to be confirmed months later, but the plans under consideration were never carried through, likely because of U.S. threats of retaliation. In late October 2020, a senior Trump Administration official said the missiles would be destroyed if they arrived in Venezuela. Later reports indicated that the U.S. was considering deploying the Coast Guard to interdict the shipment, expected to take place aboard a commercial vessel rather than a warship.

The expiration of the U.N. arms embargo against Iran in October 2020 and the expiration of the U.N. missile embargo in October 2023 will improve Iran’s procurement activities and its ability to transfer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including attack drones, to authoritarian regimes like Venezuela, Russia, and China.

In 2021, Iran dispatched warships carrying arms intended for Caracas, though the types of arms were unclear. One of the ships was believed to be carrying fast-attack craft, a mainstay of the IRGC’s asymmetric naval threat. Biden Administration officials claimed victory for its diplomatic efforts to prevent the transfer, saying they believed public and private pressure against Venezuela, Cuba, and other South American countries resulted in the Iranian warships’ course change. The administration reportedly used the threat of sanctions to deter the Latin American countries from receiving the vessels. An interdiction of these shipments would have likely required the U.S. Navy, given that Iran was transporting the weapons via warships rather than commercial vessels.