A recently published U.S. Department of Defense report claims that members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force (IRGC-QF) currently are operating in Venezuela. STRATFOR sources claim that the relatively limited number of IRGC-QF in Venezuela are focused on intelligence operations, paramilitary training for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and security assistance for the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Though the IRGC-QF presence brings certain benefits to the Venezuelan government, Chavez also has an interest in keeping their proxy militant focus on Colombia.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates submitted a report to Congress in April on the current and future military strategy of Iran. Included in the report is a claim that the Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of Iran's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has developed a significant presence in Latin America, particularly in Venezuela. STRATFOR sources connected to this Iranian military unit have confirmed a small but notable presence in Venezuela. Though IRGC-QF members in Venezuela are believed to be providing some security assistance to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader does not appear interested in incurring reprisals from the United States and is consequently trying to direct the anti-U.S. activities of the IRGC-QF toward neighboring Colombia. As the Pentagon report states, IRGC-QF members usually are stationed in foreign embassies, charities and religious or cultural institutions as intelligence officers to develop ties with the Shiite diaspora and other potential allies. The U.S. military even has labeled incoming and outgoing Iranian ambassadors to Iraq as IRGC-QF members. On a more narrow scale, the IRGC-QF arms, funds and trains various paramilitary groups as an extension of Iran's well-developed militant proxy arm. The IRGC-QF is believed to have worked with proxies to orchestrate major attacks against U.S. and U.S.-allied targets, including the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and a number of insurgent attacks targeting U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. By keeping this elite unit in reserve in various pockets of the globe, Iran has the ability to carry out attacks under plausible deniability. The reality of Iran's retaliatory options — made possible by the IRGC-QF — has factored heavily into U.S. war-gaming exercises against Iran. Joined by their mutually hostile relationship with the United States, Iran and Venezuela have grown to be close allies in the past several years. A good portion of this relationship consists of rhetoric designed to grab the attention of Washington, but significant forms of cooperation do exist between the two countries. STRATFOR sources have indicated many of the inflated economic deals signed between Iran and Venezuela and the establishment of the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo (an Iranian banking subsidiary headquartered in Caracas) are designed to facilitate Iran's money laundering efforts while providing the Venezuelan government with an additional source of illicit revenue. The Iranian-Venezuelan relationship also extends into the militant proxy world. Though this information has not been confirmed, STRATFOR sources claim the current IRGC-QF presence in Venezuela is limited to roughly 300 members. This estimate could well be on the high side, considering the likelihood that it includes all IRGC-QF paramilitary trainers and personnel working under diplomatic, business and religious cover. Many of these IRGC-QF members are focused on developing relationships with Venezuelan youth of Arab origin, who are viewed as potential intelligence and militant recruits. Some of these recruits are brought to Iran for training, and STRATFOR sources claim that several Hezbollah trainers are included among the IRGC-QF personnel. However, these efforts remain limited given the relatively small size of the Shiite community in Venezuela, believed to be less than one percent of Venezuela's Muslims, which comprise roughly four percent of the population. A portion of IRGC-QF members are believed to interact with militants belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia's largest paramilitary group. The Chavez government is widely believed to provide direct support for FARC rebels and smaller Colombian paramilitary groups, but the Venezuelan president also appears wary of the IRGC-QF interaction with these groups. A STRATFOR source has indicated that IRGC-QF links with FARC are designed to give Iran the option of targeting U.S. interests in Colombia should the need for retaliation arise (for example, in the event of a U.S. military strike on Iran). The source says the IRGC-QF does not have a presence in Colombia but supports FARC from the paramilitary group's sanctuary along the Venezuelan border. While it remains highly doubtful that Iran would be able to exert the necessary influence over FARC to direct their attacks against U.S. targets, simply having FARC as the main culprit for attacks in Colombia could provide Iran with the plausible deniability it seeks in such attacks. The Venezuelan government appears to be benefiting in part by hosting the IRGC-QF, but, like Iran, wants to ensure some level of plausible deniability. A STRATFOR source claims that some IRGC-QF members have been integrated into Venezuela's National Guard and police force, where they provide assistance to the Chavez government in containing the opposition. IRGC-QF and Hezbollah personnel also are believed to be involved in irregular warfare training for some Venezuelan army units, in addition to FARC. Chavez has publicly endorsed the concept of "asymmetric warfare" in his restructuring of the Venezuelan army to guard against potential military threats from Colombia and the United States. That said, Chavez also is wary of IRGC-QF activities directed at the United States. According to the source, Chavez has strongly cautioned Iran against allowing IRGC-QF to target U.S. interests in Venezuela itself. Despite his heated rhetoric against the United States, the Venezuelan president does not wish to invite a strong U.S. reprisal and would rather keep their militant focus on Venezuela's main regional rival, Colombia.