Venezuela seeks to leverage US energy needs to free Iran’s super-influencer

If he is released from a U.S. jail, Alex Saab and his network would only make it easier for Iran to evade sanctions.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Máduro meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in November 2016. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Máduro meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in November 2016. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Maria Zuppello
Maria Zuppello

Last Friday, the Biden administration offered a license to Chevron that would allow the company to expand its operations in Venezuela in order to enhance U.S. oil supplies. In return, Caracas demanded the release of Alex Nain Saab Morán, a Colombian businessman of Lebanese descent and Venezuela’s top facilitator with Iran.

“We call on the U.S. authorities to respect international law by immediately releasing diplomat Alex Saab,” the Venezuelan government stated in a resolution sponsored by the leftist São Paulo Forum.

“Saab is a prisoner of war, of the U.S. imperialism war against Venezuela, free Alex Saab,” said Maduro, who claims that Saab was his special envoy to Tehran for humanitarian purposes. Saab’s diplomatic immunity and a request for his release will be discussed at a Dec. 12 hearing in Miami.

Saab was extradited to the U.S. in 2021 after he was arrested in 2020 for money laundering in Cape Verde while en route to Iran.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Saab was not a diplomat, but Maduro’s bagman, helping Venezuela and Iran evade U.S. economic sanctions. In 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department personally sanctioned the Colombian businessman over a food aid corruption scheme and illicit gold exports to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

“Alex Saab engaged with Maduro insiders to run a widescale corruption network they callously used to exploit Venezuela’s starving population. They use food as a form of social control, to reward political supporters and punish opponents, all the while pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars,” said the Treasury Department.

Some Middle Eastern media outlets have referred to Saab as a “Hezbollah man,” indicating that his primary affiliation is with the Lebanese terrorist group rather than the Venezuelan government.

A recent report by the U.S. cybersecurity firm Insikt Group revealed that the São Paulo Forum resolution is part of a robust influence operation by Venezuela and Iran intended to engineer Saab’s release.

Iran and Maduro fear that Saab will disclose their illicit activities to U.S. authorities. Furthermore, Iran could expand its influence in Latin America by leveraging Saab’s network and power.

“Iranian and Venezuelan entities have sought to increase anti-American sentiment in Latin America through disinformation that claims the U.S. is unjustly sanctioning, kidnapping and illegally detaining Saab,” said the Insikt report.

Saab allegedly helped Venezuela buy gasoline additives and components and receive technicians from Iran in exchange for $500 million in Venezuelan gold in early 2020 after U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela escalated.

The gold was transferred to Tehran on Mahan Air planes blacklisted by the Treasury Department. Mahan has a history of transporting operatives, weapons, equipment and funds for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force and Hezbollah.

In addition, international intelligence sources told Colombia’s Semana magazine that 12 to 17 Mahan Air planeloads of weaponry landed in Venezuela in 2020. The Iranian flights carried 1,050 missiles, 400 bombs, 500 rockets and 35 radar systems, the magazine stated, citing Venezuelan Defense Ministry documents. According to analysts, Iran wanted the weapons in South America to threaten reprisal against the U.S. if it attacked Iran or its Middle Eastern proxies.

The devastating effects of Alex Saab’s lobbying for Maduro in Iran continue even while he is in prison.

The Venezuelan government signed a long-term cooperation agreement with Iran this summer, reinstating weekly flights between the two countries. Although the stated goal was to promote tourism, the planes likely transport drone components and other military equipment. The Iranian kamikaze drones deployed in the Russia-Ukraine war, allegedly made in Venezuela, are also the outcome of Saab’s mediation work in Iran.

“Alex Saab is the iceberg’s tip,” Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. “Behind him are the corrupt dealings of [Hugo] Chávez and Maduro with Iran, including the trafficking of arms and drones and the exploitation of Venezuelan gold mines. Saab’s network has made him a tremendous facilitator for the government.”

Partners in the shell companies through which Saab negotiated with Iran included his Lebanese father, Luis Saab Rada, who died in 2021. The Colombian press accused Luis of being a member of Black September, the Palestinian terrorist organization responsible for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The family connection likely facilitated Alex Saab’s relationship with Iran, which is defending him with a robust disinformation effort.

During a press conference in Aug. 2021, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh condemned the United States’ extradition of Saab, claiming that it violated “all accepted principles governing the work of diplomats around the world, and can be a dangerous innovation in international law and relations between countries.”

According to the Insikt Group report, Al Mayadeen, a pro-Hezbollah media outlet based in Lebanon, is spreading disinformation about the Saab trial. Articles claimed that the U.S. “is using torture methods against Saab.”

“The Saab influence campaign is an example of how Iran is expanding its ideological and political influence in Latin America through narrative warfare,” said the report.

Former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Marshall Billingslea has warned against releasing Saab, tweeting, “Credible rumors swirling that the White House wants to trade Alex Saab to Venezuela. By recognizing his sham claim to be a diplomat, they would sabotage the court case against him. It took years to build the sanctions package & indictment, & to secure arrest & extradition.”

In a recent letter, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) urged the administration not to release Saab.

“Negotiations with a dictator will only beget more negotiations with a dictator, and the damage done in the meantime is disastrous,” they wrote.

If the presiding judge recognizes Saab’s diplomatic immunity, the case will be dismissed. Otherwise, the Biden administration might opt for a pardon, as suggested by former U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliot Abrams.

The U.S. government, which has not issued a statement on the matter, might also seek a prisoner swap similar to one made in early October. Two of Maduro’s wife’s nephews, who were jailed for years on drug smuggling convictions in the U.S., were exchanged for seven American prisoners in Caracas.

Saab’s potential release, however, will not address all of the Biden administration’s difficulties.

Venezuela cannot satisfy the oil needs of the United States, but an expansion of its oil industry would greatly benefit Iran, as the Venezuelan refining industry is dependent on the Islamic republic, which has exported 6.8 million barrels of crude oil this year. Furthermore, in October, Iran inaugurated its first overseas refinery in Venezuela, El Palito, which refines 100,000 barrels of Venezuelan crude oil per day.

Saab’s freedom would transform him into an even more powerful agent for Tehran, a Trojan horse in Latin America. As Bocaranda put it, “Saab is and will always be a highly talented financial operator of the Maduro government, which does business with crime, murderers and those who operate illicit trades.”

If the current talks over a renewed nuclear deal fail and U.S. sanctions on Iran are not lifted, Saab and his network would only make it easier for Iran to evade them.

Maria Zuppello is an Italian investigative reporter based in Brazil and an expert on the crime-terror nexus. She is the author of the book Tropical Jihad.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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