Iran has illegally laundered billions of dollars through the Venezuelan financial sector and is currently stashing "hundreds of millions" of dollars in "virtually every Venezuelan bank today," according to a former senior State Department official.
"It’s a huge blind spot in those trying to implement sanctions" on Iran, Roger Noriega, a former United States ambassador and assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, told the Washington Free Beacon.
Venezuela served as Iran’s closest Western ally under the late President Hugo Chavez, who allowed the rogue regime to establish a military and financial presence at the highest levels of the Venezuelan government.
Iran’s foothold in the country is expected to grow exponentially under the rule of Chavez’s likely successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
Hezbollah, which carries out terrorist attacks on Iran’s behalf, has helped Tehran access Venezuela’s sophisticated financial sector, experts said.
"It’s easy to say billions have been laundered through various Iranian enterprises and institutions through the Venezuelan economy," Noriega told the Free Beacon in an interview Thursday. "The Iranians have seized on this as a way to evade sanctions."
Hezbollah has not only infiltrated Venezuela’s governmental bodies. The organization has also established terrorist training facilities on the country’s Margarita Island, according to Noriega.
Hezbollah has been able to form from this Caribbean haven "a marriage of convenience" with various narcotics traffickers and drug gangs that bring the terrorist "threat to our doorstep," Noriega told lawmakers Wednesday.
The Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman, ringleader of the deadly Sinaloa Cartel, is known to have spent time on Margarita Island where he likely established ties with Hezbollah, according to Noriega.
"Our [belief] is that the brokered a relationship, a collaboration between Hezbollah and that narco group," said Noriega, who also served as the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American states from 2001 to 2003.
Hezbollah has been able to profit from its partnerships with drug traffickers and smugglers, money that likely goes to fund its terrorist operations across the globe.
Lawmakers and experts believe the U.S. government has failed to properly combat Hezbollah’s Latin American activities or even take the issue seriously.
"We have to do more and we have to do it quicker," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D., Calif.), explaining that economic sanctions and other measures have failed to stymie Iran’s illicit behavior.
"The presence of Hezbollah in the region could serve as an important part of Iran’s [ability] to retaliate for [Western] efforts to curtail its nuclear program," Sherman said.
The State Department, however, has mostly ignored the issue, Noriega said.
"They pass off statements of concerns," he said. "That’s the best they’re able to do."
Senior U.S. officials "minimize discussion of this problem and it has to change," Noriega added. "At this point it’s bordering on criminal negligence."
Hezbollah’s presence in the country is likely to grow as Venezuela determines Chavez’s successor, according to Noriega.
The terror group is likely "to emerge with potentially more powerful roles [in the Venezuelan government] because of their relationships with Maduro," said Noriega. "This could go from bad to worse. If anything, they’ll have greater access at the highest levels."
The only way for the U.S. to effectively combat this threat is to take action against the narcotics traffickers tied to Hezbollah.
U.S. authorities must investigate the money laundering activities, capture operatives as they travel across the region, and seize various bank assets associated with these groups, Noriega said.
"You track their involvements and do your best to intercept these people," he said.
But "it all starts with an acknowledgement of the problem," Noriega added. "It’s very frustrating, the State Department’s ostrich-like response."