Last October, Ambassador Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere during the George W. Bush Administration, exposed Hugo Chávez's efforts to aid and abet Iran's illegal nuclear weapons program, including its efforts to obtain strategic minerals such as uranium and to evade international sanctions.
Documentary evidence now suggests that Hugo Chavez's junior partner in Ecuador, Rafael Correa, is apparently forging his own dangerous alliance with the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime, raising troubling questions about whether Iran continues to expand its global efforts to obtain uranium and other strategic minerals that are critical to Teheran's rogue nuclear program.
According to sensitive official documents provided to me by knowledgeable sources in Ecuador and other countries and published here for the first time, Iran and Ecuador have concluded a $30 million deal to conduct joint mining projects in Ecuador that appears to lay the groundwork for future extractive activities. The deal, which was apparently finalized in December 2009, "expresses the interest of the President of the Republic [of Ecuador] and the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to boost closer and mutually beneficial relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran on a variety of fronts, among them mining and geology."
The deal calls for the establishment of a jointly run Chemical-Geotechnical-Metallurgical Research Center in Ecuador [Laboratorio Químico-Geotécnico-Metalurgico] and "to jointly implement a comprehensive study and topographic and cartographic analysis of [Ecuadorean territory]."
What is most concerning about developing Ecuadorean-Iranian ties in the mining sector is that, like Venezuela, Ecuador is known to possess deposits of uranium. In August 2009, Russia and Ecuador signed a nuclear agreement that included joint geological research and development of uranium fields, as well as building nuclear power plants and research reactors. In March 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency also unveiled plans to help Ecuador explore for uranium and study the possibility of developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
Granted, Ecuador's mining agreements with Iran make no mention of uranium, or any other mineral, and Ecuador has the same right as most nations to develop nuclear energy or harvest uranium. But doing so in a way that consciously aids Iran's illegal program puts it on the wrong side of international restrictions. United Nations sanctions expressly prohibit Iranian investment in activities such as uranium mining and ban Iran from pursuing "any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons."
This is not the first time the Correa government's shadowy deals with Iran have been exposed to public scrutiny. In a December 2008 deal, the Export Development Bank of Iran (EBDI) offered to deposit $120 million in the Ecuadorean Central Bank to fund bilateral trade. EDBI, however, was sanctioned in October 2008 by the U.S. Treasury Department for helping to finance Iran's weapons of mass destruction programs.
As a result, in February 2010, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a multilateral organization that combats money laundering and terrorist financing, placed Ecuador on a list of countries that failed to comply with its regulations. In another high profile case, the country's top trade official and a close Correa advisor, Galo Borja, was forced to resign after it was revealed his private mining and export company was doing brisk business with Iran, a flagrant violation of conflict-of-interest laws.
The U.S. government obviously is aware of Iran's provocative activities in our own neighborhood. As far back as 2006, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, State Department officers were asking all the right questions about Venezuela's uranium riches. Unfortunately, U.S. diplomats either have failed to monitor Iran's suspect mining activities in the Western Hemisphere or have failed to connect the dots about the dangerous game being played by Iran and co-conspirators in Venezuela and Ecuador.
President Obama has an excellent opportunity to turn this situation around and raise the issue of Iranian activities in Ecuador and Venezuela when he visits the region next month. In stops in the capitals of two regional heavyweights, Brazil, and Chile, he should privately press both countries to be more engaged in understanding and responding to the dangers to regional and international security of the escalating Iranian presence in our neighborhood. The president should also take the case to Latin American audiences that no good can come from collaboration with Iran and they risk immersing their countries in international disputes of the highest order in which they have absolutely no interest.
If the administration fails to act on its own accord, the U.S. Congress must press for more effective measures to investigate whether Iran, Venezuela, Ecuador, and any other nation may be violating United Nations sanctions. Presidents Correa and Hugo Chávez are knee-jerk enemies of the United States. However, if their actions are found to constitute a threat to international peace and security, they must be made to pay the price.
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