A conglomerate owned by the Iranian military and tied to Iran’s missile program has established a retail foothold in Venezuela, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.
The Iranian firm is working with the Maduro government’s emergency food program, which is the subject of United States enforcement action as an alleged money-laundering operation, the WSJ report, published on Sunday, said.
Iran and Venezuela are both under severe US sanctions that have crippled their economies.
“On June 21, the Golsan ship will arrive, bringing food to open the first Iranian supermarket in Venezuela. Another success in friendly and fraternal relations between two countries,” Iran’s embassy in Caracas tweeted in June.
Iran said one of its vessels, Golsan, discharged a cargo of food and medical supplies at the Venezuelan northern port of La Guayra on June 21 to supply Iran’s first supermarket in Venezuela.
“The Golsan’s journey signals a blossoming relationship between the two nations in defiance of stiff financial sanctions by the Trump administration against each of them,” the state-run Mehr news agency said.
The location of the new Iranian supermarket was previously a major outlet for Venezuela’s military-run emergency food program known by its Spanish initials, CLAP, the report said.
According to the report, 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 Etka, a company affiliated with Iran’s defense ministry.
According to its website, Etka is “the largest distribution network for consumer goods in the national market … which operates in various fields of finance and economics, foreign trade, industry, agriculture and animal husbandry.”
Etka’s products also are sold in Iraq and Tajikistan and the network has held talks to enter Syria and Russia, WSJ said.
Etka is headed by Issa Rezaei appointed by Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami as the CEO of the company in late 2018.
Prior to his appointment as CEO, Rezaei headed the Kowsar Credit Institute, a financial institution affiliated with the Iranian military.
US, Colombian and Mexican officials charge the Maduro government has used the CLAP program to launder stolen state assets, proceeds from drug trafficking and other illicit activities, the report said.
US officials and Venezuela experts question Iran’s intentions in setting up the Venezuelan food operation.
“This is Iran’s sanctioned military taking advantage of the sanctioned but desperate Venezuelans to make money,” Russ Dallen, the Miami-based managing partner of Caracas Capital Markets who tracks developments in Venezuela, told WSJ. “They are not doing it out of the goodness of their heart.”
US officials say the recent, increased collaboration between Iran and Venezuela also represents a possible security threat as Tehran exports its military expertise and technology, according to the report.
One senior Western diplomat told the WSJ that their nation’s intelligence reported that Iran was transferring military technicians to Venezuela along with engineers Tehran sent to help the country restore its broken energy infrastructure.
Most Iranian companies involved in Venezuela have ties to the IRGC, the report said.
The Golsan, the vessel which shipped the food for the Etka supermarket, is owned by a firm that delivered fuel to Venezuela and that was sanctioned for transporting items related to Iran’s ballistic-missile and other IRGC programs, the WSJ said.
Mahan Air, an Iranian airliner backlisted by the US for smuggling weapons to Iran’s proxies in the Middle East’s war zones on behalf of the IRGC’s Quds Force, brought components to refurbish a Venezuelan refinery in exchange for gold, the report said. Khatam al-Anbiya, an IRGC conglomerate, provided the engineers, the report added.