- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

Earlier this month, Iran’s “mullah-President” Mohammed Khatami visited Caracas to ink some deals with Venezuelan socialist President Hugo Chavez. At the event, billed as an effort to “counterbalance U.S. global hegemony,” both anti-American leaders demeaned U.S. overtures to dissuade Tehran from building nuclear weapons. “Iran has every right in the world, as do other countries, to develop its own atomic energy,” Mr. Chavez said.

Spokesmen in Tehran have said the United States is “hallucinating” about any possibility the Iranian Islamic Republic will scrap its nuclear program in exchange for “funny and disrespectful” economic incentives. “The U.S. should apologize to Iran for making this proposal,” said Iranian Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi. He called U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a “queen of war and violence.”

Tough talk, like a “Havana harangue” — the sort of shrill blather we’ve come to expect of Fidel Castro in his dotage.

But this isn’t just the roar of a toothless tiger. Messrs. Khatami and Chavez are putting their money where their mouths are. With near-record oil prices, Iran and Venezuela — two of the world’s top five oil producers — are rolling in petro-dollars. And their newfound wealth is financing much more than words.

Iran’s oil wealth is buying Russian nuclear technology, material and the know-how to build the kind of bomb for which Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan provided the blueprints. Petrodollars also pay for Russian, Chinese and North Korean help in building an Iranian long-range ballistic missile — that can reach not only Israel but Western Europe. When the Israelis suggested they might unilaterally stop the Iranian nuclear threat, as they did with Iraq in 1981, Tehran responded with economic blackmail: Any attack would result in Iran mining the Hormuz Straits — through which 40 percent of the world’s oil is transported.

Hugo Chavez, his pockets bulging with U.S. petrodollars, has gone on a spending spree — but not to benefit his country’s poor. With $5 billion in annual profits from the now nationalized Venezuelan oil industry, Comrade Chavez is buying 100,000 AK-47s, 50 advanced MiG-29 fighters, new naval combatants and a fleet of lethal helicopter gunships.

He is financing and outfitting a new “Bolivarian Army” to “contend with the forces of imperialism” and is paying to build an “al Jazeera-type” radio network to provide “the truth about American hegemonic designs” in Latin America.

Like the Iranians, self-styled revolutionary Hugo Chavez uses oil revenues to buy more than just foreign weapons. He is also buying friends and influence beyond his own borders. Fidel Castro is tickled commie-pink over a sweetheart deal he has for 53,000 barrels of Venezuelan sweet crude every day and more than $800 million in unpaid debt — all for sending teachers, doctors and military advisers to Caracas.

Mr. Castro is not the only “Latin leader” benefiting from the Chavez largess. According to sources in Managua, “Hugo Chavez is the principal financier” for diehard Sandinista Daniel Ortega who hopes to become the “comeback communist” in Nicaragua’s 2006 elections.

Thus far, Washington’s response to these Khatami-Chavez oil-funded provocations has been purely rhetorical. This week, President Bush reiterated his support for the failed European diplomatic initiative aimed at dissuading Iran nuclear enrichment. At the same time, the administration announced plans to “contain” Venezuela’s aggressive anti-American agenda — yet did nothing to deter delivery of the advanced military hardware being acquired by the Chavez regime.

In little-noticed Senate Armed Services Committee testimony last week, Gen. Bantz Craddock, commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command, said he is “concerned because we don’t know the intent” of the Chavez military buildup. Roger Pardo-Maurer, defense deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, has said Mr. Chavez is “using his oil money and influence to introduce his conflictive style into the politics of other countries,” and went on to call it “subversion.”

Yet, no one in the White House, State Department or Pentagon has the temerity to say Mr. Chavez and Mr. Khatami are doing something “unacceptable.” That word is apparently being saved for some future statement: “If [Insert name here] does [Insert act here], that would be unacceptable.”

Why the muted response? Because of oil. The slowly recovering U.S. and global economy depends on the slippery black substance. Even the OPEC ministers meeting last week in Isfahan, Iran, of all places, recognized the per barrel price of increasingly scarce crude is very close to squelching the year-old upturn. Worse yet, everyone knows the Iranian threat to close the Straits of Hormuz, and Mr. Chavez’s repeated warnings he could cut off U.S. supplies of Venezuelan oil — 15 percent of all we consume — is real.

The common thread here is U.S. dependence on foreign oil: 60 percent of all we use is imported. This week’s narrow 51-49 victory in the U.S. Senate for opening a tiny portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling is part of the long-term solution. So too are increased efforts to develop fuel-cell alternatives to petroleum power. But both responses leave short-term U.S. vulnerability to the aberrant behavior of two wealthy, hostile regimes building an “Axis of Instability” and upping the oil ante just hours south of our borders.

Fueling the fires of freedom in the Middle East and Southwest Asia is important; but so is protecting democracy and free enterprise in our own hemisphere. It’s time the administration paid closer attention to what is happening close to home. Otherwise, we’ll all pay the price at the pump.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.

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