WASHINGTON — Israel’s contention that its regional foe Iran is helping Venezuela build combat drones is raising concerns that the two anti-U.S. allies could enable such drones to be used for terrorism.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on February 22 that his government determined that "Iranian precision-guided missiles are being delivered" to Venezuela to be fitted into "advanced Iranian Mohajer" drones and similar models. As Gantz spoke, a screen showed an image of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro presenting a model of a drone on state TV.
Research group Aurora Intel, which first tweeted the screen shot of the Venezuelan TV program in November 2020, said the model was a representation of an Iranian Mohajer-6 drone, the latest version of its kind. Its capabilities include missile strikes and surveillance at a range of 200 kilometers and an endurance of 12 hours.
"With this image in mind," Gantz said, "I can tell you that in my meetings with partners from around the world, including African and Latin American partners, I heard extreme concern about Iranian support for terrorism."
Iran has provided drone technology to Venezuela since 2007, beginning with assembly kits for the early-generation Iranian Mohajer-2 surveillance drone, which has a 50- kilometer range. Iranian authorities began mass production of the Mohajer-6 combat drone in 2018.
There are no known cases of Venezuela’s Iranian-designed drones being used in terrorist attacks. But several experts in Iran-Venezuela military ties told VOA that the drones could be used in attacks either by U.S.-designated terrorist organizations or by what the U.S. calls the "illegitimate Maduro regime," which harbors the groups.
Terror groups in Venezuela
The U.S. State Department’s 2020 Country Reports on Terrorism, published in December, said that Venezuela remained a "permissive environment for known terrorist groups" that have a "complicated relationship" with Maduro "characterized by both conflict and cooperation."
One of those U.S.-designated terror groups is Iran’s top military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which appeared in Venezuela in the late 2000s. Another group is Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy whose activity in Venezuela grew significantly in the early 2010s.
"The Venezuelan government’s enduring strategic alliance with Iran suggests that it could allow the Iranians or their proxies to use military assets such as drones for their own purposes," said Emanuele Ottolenghi, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano said in November that Hezbollah militants active in neighboring Venezuela posed a threat to his country, making them a "common enemy" of both Colombia and Israel.
Also in November, Colombian newspaper El Tiempo cited unnamed Colombian military intelligence sources as saying Hezbollah had hired hitmen to try to assassinate an Israeli citizen in Bogota earlier in 2021, but Colombian and Israeli authorities had thwarted the plot and evacuated the targeted individual to Israel.
El Tiempo said the thwarted plot was part of an alleged Iranian-backed operation that also sought to target Americans to avenge a January 2020 U.S. drone strike that assassinated Iranian IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.
Ottolenghi said Venezuela-based IRGC or Hezbollah militants could target Israeli or American citizens in Colombia with a combat drone if the drone eluded Colombian air defenses. "But what we have seen so far in Iran’s attempt to avenge Soleimani’s death is the traditional type of terror plots involving on-the-ground assassins. So, a drone strike would be something new," he said.
"Imagine another scenario in which there is a naval confrontation between Iran and the U.S.," said Farzin Nadimi, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Suddenly, there are U.S. ships getting attacked in the Caribbean by unknown drones. That would be in line with Iran’s strategy of showing that its proxies in Venezuela can harm U.S. interests in the Americans’ backyard while maintaining plausible deniability of Iranian involvement in any attacks," Nadimi said.
A third scenario could see Colombian armed groups in Venezuela using combat drones, said Brian Fincheltub, director of consular affairs for the Venezuelan embassy in Washington. Fincheltub is a representative of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, whom the U.S. has recognized as the nation’s interim president since 2019, when Washington deemed Maduro illegitimate for presiding over alleged electoral irregularities.
Several Colombian militias opposed to the Colombian government are active in Venezuela, according to an October report by the InSight Crime research group based in Colombia and the U.S. The militias include the National Liberation Army (ELN) and dissident factions of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The U.S. has designated all of them as foreign terrorist organizations.
"It is very probable that these drones can end up in the hands of the FARC dissidents or ELN fighters that operate along the Venezuelan border with Colombia and that have found an ally in Venezuela’s regime," Fincheltub said.
In a fourth scenario, Iran could provide Venezuela with parts for a future combat drone that would have an even longer range than the Mohajer-6 and enable the Maduro government to potentially threaten the territory of its longtime adversary the United States, said Uzi Rubin, an analyst with the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
"The Iranians are increasing the range of their UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) all the time," Rubin said. "Theoretically, they could sell Venezuela a more advanced version of the Mohajer capable of flying from Venezuela’s northern coast on a one-way journey to the Southern U.S. state of Florida."
When a United Nations embargo on supplies of major weapons to and from Iran expired in October 2020, Maduro said buying Iranian missiles was a "good idea." Since then, Venezuela and Iran have signed deals to boost cooperation in defense and security.
Neither the Maduro nor the Iranian government responded to VOA requests for comment on whether Iran has supplied combat drones to Venezuela and what they think of Israel's assertion that transfers of such weapons are raising concerns about terrorism in Latin America.
VOA sent the requests by email to Venezuela’s Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information and to the Iranian mission at the U.N. in New York.
In September 2020, under the administration of then-President Donald Trump, the U.S. imposed financial sanctions on Maduro for abetting Iran’s proliferation of conventional arms. Trump also sanctioned the Iran Aviation Industries Organization, an Iranian Defense Ministry branch that manufactures the Mohajer drones, for the same offense in January 2021.
The State Department of Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, did not respond to a VOA email asking whether it is concerned about Israel’s assertion that Maduro is acquiring combat drones from Iran and what the U.S. is doing about the issue.
The Biden administration has offered to lift at least some U.S. sanctions on Iran if it agrees to a mutual return to compliance with a 2015 deal in which world powers promised Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities that could be weaponized. U.S. and Iranian officials have said their negotiators in Vienna are getting closer to an agreement.
Jason Brodsky, policy director for U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, told VOA that U.S. negotiators did not appear to have pressed Iran to curtail its proliferation of drones and missiles.
"By taking our eye off of those destabilizing Iranian activities and potentially surrendering the most punishing U.S. sanctions on Iran, we are handicapping our ability to tackle these other nonnuclear threats that Tehran poses to the international community," Brodsky said.
Cristina Caicedo Smit of VOA’s Latin American division contributed to this story.