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Chavez turns to Iran on military, uranium

By Rowan Scarborough | The Washington Times

Published April 10, 2006 | Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is seeking to deepen ties with Iran, with discussions on holding joint military exercises and obtaining uranium, according to Bush administration officials.

Hamas also is talking to Caracas about sending representatives to Venezuela to raise money for the militant group's newly elected Palestinian government.

But relations with another ally, Russia, have soured over a deal in which Moscow is selling 100,000 AK-47s to Venezuela. The South American country was counting on receiving new rifles, but Russia has shipped a number of refurbished models, prompting Caracas to halt the deal, the U.S. sources said.

Mr. Chavez's continuing efforts to cozy up to Iran are of increasing concern inside the Pentagon and State Department.

Mr. Chavez yesterday threatened to expel the U.S. ambassador, after accusing the diplomat of provoking tensions, according to reporters in Caracas. The threat came two days after pro-Chavez demonstrators tossed eggs, fruit and vegetables at Ambassador William Brownfield's car and the State Department warned Venezuela that it faced consequences if it did not protect the U.S. envoy.

The Washington Times reported in October that the Chavez government had made overtures to Iran about obtaining nuclear technology. The U.S. and European allies are now trying to force Tehran to give up its stated ambition to enrich uranium, a possible first step to building nuclear weapons.

U.S. officials told The Times that talks now include discussions on Venezuela's obtaining uranium for what is feared to be a fledgling nuclear program in Caracas.

"Hugo Chavez has been clearly talking to Iran about uranium," said a senior administration official, who asked not to be named.

The official said he could not confirm reports that Venezuela wants to buy uranium from Iran.

Having made several trips to Iran, Mr. Chavez has declared solidarity with the country's hard-line mullahs and has entertained Iranian officials in Caracas as he seeks to build an anti-U.S. axis that also includes Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Mr. Chavez has endorsed Tehran's nuclear ambitions, and voiced support for the terror insurgency in Iraq.

"I am on the offensive," Mr. Chavez said on the Arab-language Al Jazeera television network, according to a British Broadcasting Corp. translation, "because attack is the best form of defense. We are waging an offensive battle."

Venezuela, the No. 3 U.S. oil supplier, would have to build a nuclear program from the ground up, and there have been press reports in Latin America that Mr. Chavez wants to buy a reactor from Argentina.

A spokeswoman at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington referred questions to Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, who was not available for comment. Mr. Alvarez denied to The Times last year that Venezuela was supporting insurgencies in South America and that Venezuela bought the 100,000 AK-47s from Russia "because of defensive purposes for the country."

The Times reported last year that the State Department had formally protested the rifle deal to Moscow. The fear is Mr. Chavez's left-wing regime is arming neighborhood militias trained by Cuba to enforce a Stalinist-like security apparatus, while putting used rifles on the black market for South American insurgents.

The Web site reported last week on the refurbished AK-47s.

The senior administration official said he believes the report is true and probably stems from corruption on both ends of the deal.

"Throughout the Venezuelan government, there is a complete lack of accountability because Chavez has destroyed the institutions of accountability," the official said. "He's trying to centralize everything to himself."

A State Department official said the administration is also concerned about the overtures Venezuela is making toward Hamas, the militant organization that executes terror attacks on Israel and recently won Palestinian parliamentary elections.

"We certainly are concerned about the ongoing relationship with Venezuela and a number of countries of concern, not just Iran, but Hamas and others," the official said.

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