07 Jul 2020
An Iranian conglomerate owned by the country’s military and tied to its missile program has established a retail foothold in Venezuela, according to officials and records detailing the move, deepening Tehran’s involvement with the Maduro government.
The Iranian firm is working with the Maduro government’s troubled emergency food program, which is the subject of U.S. enforcement action as an alleged money-laundering operation, compounding U.S. concerns regarding the move.
The arrival of the company, which also has ties to Iran’s elite military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, designated by the U.S. as a terror organization, bolsters Tehran’s foothold in the Western Hemisphere and comes as Venezuela increasingly seeks assistance from U.S. foes, including petroleum from Iran and energy-industry assistance from Russia.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions against the governments of the two countries, both of which lauded the new venture as part of a growing diplomatic, military and trade relationship.
“Another success in friendly and fraternal relations between two countries,” Iran’s embassy in Caracas tweeted recently.
On June 21, an Iranian vessel discharged a cargo of food at a Venezuelan port to supply the Islamic Republic’s first supermarket in the Latin American nation, according to shipping trackers and comments by Tehran’s ambassador to Caracas, Hojatollah Soltani, released by the embassy.
Venezuelan media, including state-run news outlets, showed a giant, empty grocery store in the Venezuelan capital on the cusp of opening with fresh products. The location previously was a major outlet for Venezuela’s military-run emergency food program known by its Spanish initials, Clap.
The building now exclusively advertises brands owned by the Iranian military: Delnoosh, which makes tomato sauce and canned tuna, and Varamin, which makes sunflower oil. The firms are two of the many subsidiaries of a company called Ekta, according to its website, which was set up as a social-security trust for Iranian military veterans.
Ekta didn’t respond to a request for comment. Iran’s embassy in Caracas and Venezuela’s mission to the United Nations also didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Ekta is headed by Issa Rezaie, a veteran executive in companies owned by the IRGC, which has been blacklisted by the U.S. for its involvement in arms development and for directing proxies fighting across multiple Middle Eastern fronts.
Ekta is subordinate to the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, another entity sanctioned by the U.S. for its alleged role in ballistic-missile development, according to the U.S. Treasury.
Any Iranian business is required to have IRGC consent to operate overseas, according to U.S. intelligence reports. As part of Tehran’s sanctions-evasion efforts, Iranian officials have appointed retired IRGC leaders to head companies in key Iranian sectors, according to the intelligence.
The Clap program is the main food source for an estimated 15% of Venezuelans and a critical supplement for a far larger percentage of the population, analysts say. But U.S., Colombian and Mexican officials charge the Maduro government has used it to launder stolen state assets, proceeds from drug trafficking and other illicit activities.
U.S. officials and prosecutors say the Clap money-laundering operations were conducted through false invoicing of overpriced food imports by contracting companies owned or controlled by a Colombian businessman, Alex Saab.
By Ian Talley and Benoit Faucon, The Wall Street Journal, 5 July 2020
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