The Venezuelan government has made overtures to various countries about obtaining nuclear technology, according to U.S. officials, who worry that President Hugo Chavez might be taking the first steps in a long road to develop nuclear weaponry.
A Bush administration official monitoring Latin America said the entreaties have included communications with Iran, with whom Venezuela maintains increasingly close ties. Washington has branded Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and accuses it of pursuing nuclear weapons through its atomic industry.
Russia has sold Iran a nuclear reactor from which Iran could eventually develop nuclear-grade materials. Russia has promised the West that it will collect all nuclear waste.
“We are keeping an eye on Venezuela,” said one senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “My sense is that Venezuela has not been as successful with its nuclear entreaties with other countries as it would have liked.”
The administration official said there is no clear evidence that Mr. Chavez wants to develop nuclear weapons. But, the source said, there is consistent intelligence reporting that his government has discussed obtaining technology from other countries.
Mr. Chavez, a populist who has ratcheted up anti-U.S. rhetoric as he forges ties with some of America’s adversaries, is in the middle of a military buildup that some analysts in the Bush administration fear is a precursor to ending elections.
“Chavez would like to have everything. He has the money to do it,” said the official, noting Venezuela’s vast oil reserves. “He wants new fighter jets. He wants to put a satellite in space.”
He has formed an alliance with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has sent thousands of government officials to Venezuela. Mr. Chavez is forming what Pentagon officials say are neighborhood militias modeled after Cuba’s communist apparatus to maintain iron-fisted control.
The U.S. administration official said Venezuela has begun taking delivery of more than 100,000 Russian-made AK-47s, some of which will arm the militias. It is also ramping up production of small-arms rounds that the Bush administration fears will be shipped to rebels in democratic parts of Latin America.
But more troubling to the Bush administration is Mr. Chavez’s close ties to the mullahs in Iran. He visited Tehran last year and held a series of meetings with Iran’s ruling mullahs. He then publicly supported Iran’s quest for a huge nuclear industry.
“They are quite kissy-kissy with Iran,” said the U.S. official. “There is a lot of back and forth. Iranians show up at Venezuelan things. They are both pariah states that hang out together.”
During an interview on Arab-language Al Jazeera television, Mr. Chavez, who had just completed his trip to Iran, was asked about his confrontation with the United States and whether he feared being deposed as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was.
“I am on the offensive,” Mr. Chavez responded, according to a transcript from the British Broadcasting Corp., “because attack is the best form of defense. We are waging an offensive battle. Yesterday, in Tehran, the spiritual guide [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei told me a true statement: power, power.”
Mr. Chavez called the U.S. war on terrorism “terrorism itself.”
Concern in Washington over Mr. Chavez’s nuclear ambitions arose this week after the Argentine newspaper Clarin reported Sunday that Venezuela had asked Buenos Aires to sell it a nuclear reactor.
Two days later, the Latin News Daily quoted Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez as denying the report. He said Venezuela was merely in talks with Argentina and Brazil to explore the peaceful scientific uses of the atom. Mr. Chavez periodically has expressed an interest in building a nuclear reactor to generate electric power.
The senior U.S. official said Washington is confident that Argentina would not sell Venezuela a reactor or any technology that could lead to nuclear weapons.
When asked about the issue Tuesday, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. expects all countries to adhere to nonproliferation treaties. Another department spokesman contacted by The Washington Times declined to discuss Venezuela beyond what Mr. Ereli said.
A person in the Venezuelan Embassy’s press office in Washington said that only the ambassador talks to the press and that he was not available for comment.