- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is accustomed to rallying his populist support through his fiery anti-Americanism and public support for regimes that oppose the United States. But there is growing concern that his government may have moved beyond mere rhetorical support with a deal that could allow Iran access to known uranium deposits in Venezuela. Allying himself with countries that share his dislike of the United States is nothing new for the oil-rich Mr. Chavez and his brand of authoritarianism, but any movement toward a joint nuclear effort with Iran is alarming.

“Iran has every right, like many other countries have done, to develop its atomic energy and continue its research in this field,” Mr. Chavez said in March 2005, after meeting with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. The two leaders also used that meeting to build their economic ties, including infrastructure projects in Venezuela, which have continued to strengthen relations between the second- and third-leading oil exporters of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Along with Cuba and Syria, Venezuela voted in January against referring the Iranian nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. Last month, Mr. Chavez claimed that “it’s absolutely false that the Iranian government is developing an atomic bomb.” During a visit to Caracas in February by the speaker of the Iranian parliament, however, several agreements were announced, one of which could lead to the mining of Venezuelan uranium for Iranian use, according to press reports. Mr. Chavez has also expressed interest in nuclear technology, though Caracas claims, like Tehran, that the technology is only for civilian uses. One serious question that needs to be posed is why would Iran, which already has a uranium-mining operation, be interested in uranium deposits in Venezuela? Potential answers all smack of nuclear proliferation.

Mr. Chavez has found that heading the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter has given him sufficient resources, often manifest in foreign aid, to influence his Latin American neighbors. Critics accuse Mr. Chavez of inserting himself and his leftist influence into politics in Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and Nicaragua. It’s clear that both his influence and his propensity to exert that influence have increased substantially in recent years, helped along by increasing oil prices. To what extent Mr. Chavez intends to wield this influence in more strategic ways — and over how much broader of a geographical scope — is yet to be fully determined. But it needs to be watched carefully.

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