BUENOS AIRES — A recent deal between Iran and Venezuela provides for the exploitation of Venezuela’s strategic minerals, prompting opposition figures to warn that President Hugo Chavez’s government could be planning to provide Tehran with uranium for its nuclear program.
The deal was part of a package of agreements, most of which were announced during a visit last month to Caracas and Cuba by Iranian parliament Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel. The two countries also established a joint $200 million development fund and signed bilateral deals to build homes and factories, and exploit petroleum.
Public details are vague, but Venezuelan opposition figures and press reports have said the deal on minerals could involve the production and transfer to Iran have said the deal on minerals could involve the production and transfer to Iran of Venezuelan uranium taken from known deposits located in the dense jungle states of Amazonas and Bolivar.
Mr. Chavez last week ridiculed such speculation as being part of an “imperialist plan” propagated by international news media.
“Now they say I am sending uranium to make atomic bombs from here, from the Venezuelan Amazon to send directly to the Persian Gulf,” Mr. Chavez said during a meeting at a military club on Tuesday. “This shows they have no limit in their capacity to invent lies.”
The speculation comes at a time of rising tension between the world community and Iran, which yesterday declared it had ruled out a proposed compromise under which it would process uranium for a peaceful nuclear program in Russia.
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — are to meet this week to discuss a draft statement aimed at increasing the pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear plans.
Retired Venezuelan Vice Adm. Jose Rafael Huizi-Clavier said the mining arrangements negotiated last month with Iran are broad and unspecific and could easily include uranium.
Other critics of Mr. Chavez point out that Venezuela recently voted against reporting Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for its uranium-enrichment program and that Mr. Chavez in recent months has attempted to purchase his own civilian-use nuclear technology from Argentina. Adm. Huizi-Clavier, who heads the Venezuela-based Institutional Military Front, a group of ex-military officials opposed to Mr. Chavez, said his group is “alarmed by a confluence of facts.” He cited construction work at a small military base and the widening of a military airstrip near the Brazilian border, where uranium deposits are said to exist.
He also noted that Mr. Chavez expelled U.S. missionaries from areas known to have uranium in February. At the time, Mr. Chavez accused New Tribes Mission, a Florida-based group, of working for the CIA and foreign mining interests.
A Florida-based spokesman for the group said none of the missionaries knew anything about uranium-mining activities.
Venezuelan Minister of Science and Technology Yadira Cordova said on Thursday that the airfield belonged to the New Tribes Mission. She also denied uranium was being mined or processed in the area, saying such technologically demanding processes “would be detected easily.”
In Washington, a State Department official said, “We are aware of reports of possible Iranian exploitation of Venezuelan uranium, but we see no commercial uranium activities in Venezuela.”
Adm. Huizi-Clavier said Mr. Chavez was playing a “dangerous game” by backing Iran at the United Nations in defiance of overwhelming world opinion.
Former Venezuelan Defense Minister Raul Salazar said the country’s support of Iran’s nuclear program was pushing relations with Washington past “the point of no return.”
Mr. Chavez’s support for Iran’s nuclear plan has thus far been purely political, he said, but “that is not to say [uranium transfers to Tehran] couldn’t happen in the future.”