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Conversations with Iran give cause for concern
by DOUGLAS MACKINNON
The most prominent development in U.S.-Venezuelan relations these days involves the case of Luis Posada Carriles and whether he should be extradited from the United States to Venezuela. There he would stand trial for a third time for his alleged involvement in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner. Meanwhile, a story with the potential to be much more important is being ignored: The growing power and global ambitions of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.
To the minute number of people who understand the threat Chavez poses to the United States, his recent hosting in Caracas of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was disturbing enough. But a high-ranking official for a Latin American government has disclosed to me details about that visit that should send shock waves throughout our government.
During a private meeting between Chavez and Khatami, I was told, Chavez made it known to the Iranian leader that he would like to "introduce nuclear elements into Venezuela." My contact said "nuclear elements" meant "nuclear weapons."
It will be easy for many to dismiss such talk as false or the fantasies of a madman, but that would be a critical mistake. I have no doubt that Chavez is mentally disturbed, and I also have no doubt that his hatred of the United States and President Bush in particular is dictating his erratic behavior. High oil prices have made Chavez an antagonist to be reckoned with, and we ignore such a menace at our peril.
Standing side by side with Khatami in Caracas, Chavez said, "Iran has every right to develop atomic energy and to continue research in that area. ... Faced with the threat of the U.S. government against our brother people in Iran, count on us for all our support."
After receiving the report that Chavez might be trying to acquire nuclear technology or weapons from Iran, I met with a high-ranking U.S. official to voice my concerns and ask what he thought about such speculation. He answered me point blank: "It would not surprise me. Chavez is dangerous, underestimated and capable of almost anything. We are hearing a number of curious and disturbing reports. He is actively working to recruit terrorist nations and developing countries into his campaign of hatred against the United States."
Toward that end, Chavez recently went on al-Jazeera television to call for Arab and developing nations to unite against the United States and President Bush. Terrorists use this network as a tool against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, and Chavez told its viewers, "We have already invaded the United States, but with our oil."
Coupled with the disturbing news that Chavez might be trying to acquire nuclear weapons is the fact that Chavez, a dictator in all but formal title, just concluded a deal with the People's Republic of China to launch a telecommunications satellite for him. So great is Chavez' interest in rockets, space and missiles that the government of Venezuela has created a special commission to advise him on such issues. Chavez with a nuclear weapon is bad enough. Chavez with a medium-range ballistic missile just minutes from the southern United States is a disaster waiting to happen.
I told the senior U.S. official that I thought Chavez posed a greater threat to our national security than Osama bin Laden or any terrorist operating out of the Middle East. He looked at me and said, "You know, I agree with you 100 percent."
So, while Cuban dictator Fidel Castro tries to manipulate world opinion by calling Posada "the most famous and cruel terrorist of the Western Hemisphere" (I was not aware that Castro had relinquished his crown), Chavez, Castro's puppet and a man who thinks he is channeling South American hero Simon Bolivar, may soon have his finger on the trigger of a nuclear weapon.
At what point do our nation and the world take this threat seriously?
MacKinnon was press secretary to former Sen. Bob Dole. He is also a former White House and Pentagon official, is married to a Venezuelan and has been to the country a number of times.