It got lost amid the remarkable dispatches from Egypt and the broader Middle East, but last week Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela revealed some big news about Hugo Chávez and Iran. Speaking to a House subcommittee on February 15, he said the U.S. government is investigating whether Venezuela recently defied American sanctions by sending gasoline to the Islamic Republic. Earlier this week, Rep. Connie Mack (R., Fla.) pointed to new evidence—specifically, signed documents—indicating that PDVSA, Venezuelas state-owned petroleum company, did indeed make the alleged gas shipments, which represent a violation of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. Hugo Chávez and PDVSA are actively helping Iran bypass both U.S. and international sanctions in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, Mack declared.
Over the past several years, Chávez has effectively turned his country into an Iranian satellite. In September 2009, he announced that Venezuela would begin selling Iran 20,000 barrels of gasoline a day. Washington needs to probe whether Chávez is still following through on that promise. If it can be proven that PDVSA violated U.S. sanctions, the Venezuelan firm should be penalized swiftly and significantly. Failing to deliver such punishment would only embolden Chávez and further weaken the strength of anti-Iran sanctions.
Valenzuela’s comments suggest that the Obama administration may finally be starting to take seriously the danger posed by the Tehran-Caracas alliance. It still needs to promulgate a coherent, robust strategy for addressing the Chávez threat and repelling Iranian influence in the region (which continues to grow). Cracking down on a flagrant violation of U.S. sanctions would be a good first step.