Venezuela, Iran and Russia: Can We Stop Being Afraid Now?

December 02, 2010

For months, foreign policy circles in DC have been abuzz with a new acronym for a new supposed threat: a looming VIRUS (Venezuela, Iran, and Russia).  According to this theory, Venezuela’s recent cooperation agreements with Iran and Russia signal what is supposed to be our worst nightmare: Venezuela and Russia could be helping Iran develop nuclear weapons.  Thankfully, this week’s WikiLeaks releases have included two cables from Caracas, which handily refute any such fears.

Simply put, a cable from June 2009 tells us:

A plain-spoken nuclear physicist told Econoff that those spreading rumors that Venezuela is helping third countries (i.e. Iran) develop atomic bombs “are full of (expletive).”

Who has been spreading these rumors?  The list includes some of the most prominent foreign-policy voices in Washington:

·    Robert Morgenthau, retired Manhattan District Attorney, sounded alarm bells in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, claiming that “two of the world’s most dangerous regimes… will be acting together in our backyard on the development of nuclear and missile technology.” (My colleague Jake Johnston addresses Morgenthau’s column directly here.)

·    Peter Brookes, Former Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs under President George W. Bush, describes his fears at length in a New York Post op-ed:

Some experts fear Caracas and Tehran may already have some small-scale nuclear projects underway. Plus, the two regimes are reportedly working on the mapping and mining of Venezuela’s uranium deposits, possibly the world’s largest.  This would certainly benefit Iran, whose nuke program is laboring under punitive sanctions that are meant to inhibit access to supporting materials and technology.  Clearly, getting its hands on uranium won’t be a problem for Caracas. …Down the road, the concern is that Iran will also share with Venezuela the military dimensions of its nuclear program, such as ballistic-missile and nuke-warhead systems and technology.

·    Roger Noriega, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush, claims in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Venezuela’s relationship with Iran “provides the Iranian regime with a clandestine source of uranium.”

·    John Bolton, US Ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, warns it “could easily result in a uranium-for-nuclear-knowhow trade” in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.

·    Former Venezuelan Defense Minister Raul Salazar is quoted by The Washington Times as saying “the country’s support of Iran’s nuclear program was pushing relations with Washington past ‘the point of no return.’”

Yet the U.S. State Department and its sources are confident these are baseless claims.  They have four solid reasons for their fearlessness:

1.Venezuela has no enrichment projects underway or foreseen, even for domestic energy.  A cable from January 2009 summarizes the opinions of several Venezuelan nuclear physicists.  One of them expressed that:

…the current discussion of developing a domestic nuclear energy program in Venezuela is only talk, as there are no serious scientists involved and no project is underway. Even if the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (GBRV) were serious, he said, it would take 10 to 15 years to make substantial progress towards developing a nuclear energy program using domestic resources.

2.Even if Venezuela were to start such a program, it doesn’t have proven uranium reserves. The January cable tells us that despite media accounts “that according to government research in the 70’s, there might be three substantial uranium deposits in Venezuela … XXXXXXXXXXXX, however, was firm in his assertion that Venezuela has little uranium.” The June cable reinforces this:

XXXXXXXXXXXX added that former Venezuelan President of the Inter-American Commission on Atomic Energy Julio Cesar Pineda’s May 8 statements to the press about Venezuela having more than 50,000 tons of uranium were “funny” and “not too clever.” … [H]e added, there is no indication of any interest on the part of the government to resume uranium exploration or exploitation.

3. Even if Venezuela were to start a program and somehow acquire uranium, it has no facilities for enrichment.  From the January cable:

While the Directorate has its own lab, XXXXXXXXXXXX said he has personally verified that none of its equipment works. He noted that the Directorate is a purely bureaucratic operation where scientists do not conduct research but rather attend numerous conferences abroad. … he cited Venezuela’s sole, and now defunct, reactor at the GBRV’s Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC). USB [Universidad Simón Bolívar], he said, carried off pieces of the 1950’s era reactor several years ago for student experiments.

4. Finally, the alternative to developing its own nuclear program would be purchasing nuclear technology from abroad, presumably from Russia.  Such a strategy is highly unlikely, given that it would require several years to put into practice.  A source for the January cable explains:

XXXXXXXXXXXX, who after the meeting identified himself as a Russian-educated scientist of Cuban origin, added that the Russians are fully capable of building adequate plants but they would take five to eight years to complete and would cost billions of dollars.

In short, despite efforts to paint cooperation as a threat of nuclear proliferation, “there seems to be little basis in reality to the claims. … [It] is highly unlikely that Venezuela is providing Venezuelan uranium to third countries.”  Hopefully this recent VIRUS panic can go the way of the swine flu and the avian flu panics, and our foreign policy dialogue can go back to tackling actual problems.

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