November 19, 2020

Iran may be shipping military equipment to Venezuela

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

Iran may have begun providing military equipment to the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela. Qeshm Fars Air, an Iranian airline affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has sent three flights to Venezuela since late October. The airline has historically transported weapons shipments for the IRGC to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria. The flights’ cargo are unconfirmed.

Iran and Venezuela have been laying groundwork for expanded military cooperation, which may include arms sales agreements. Venezuelan President Maduro *formed the Scientific and Technological Military Council in late October to make his country’s forces “more independent” with “advice and help” from China, Cuba, Iran, and Russia. Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif *visited Caracas in early November, likely to discuss economic and military ties with Venezuelan leaders.

The two countries have cooperated throughout 2020 to mitigate their economic crises and undermine US sanctions. Iranian leaders provided Venezuela energy assistance for gold in May and June and are seeking more trade to mitigate the rial’s collapse. Regime officials likely offered Maduro help mobilizing paramilitary supporters and increasing control over Venezuela’s information space in September. Tehran now seeks to sell arms and military equipment after the UN arms embargo on Iran expired in October, including to Caracas.

Iran will likely respond to US efforts to interdict Iranian-Venezuelan military cooperation with attacks around the Strait of Hormuz. Maduro suggested purchasing Iranian missiles in August, but it is unclear whether he has seriously pursued such an acquisition. The Donald Trump administration threatened to militarily intervene against potential Iranian ballistic missile shipments to Venezuela. The US previously seized Iranian fuel shipments to Venezuela in August. Iran responded by briefly seizing a Liberian-flagged tanker and will likely retaliate similarly to future potential American interdictions.