Florida, Venezuela, Iran. Oy vey!


F-16s fly over Darlington, South Carolina before the NASCAR race on May 12.


Geoff Burke

Floridians skirting US laws to ship military parts to Venezuela? Venezuela shipping F-16s to Iran?

The plot is thickening into a gripping summer novel, but reports say the evidence suggests this isn’t fiction.

This week in Florida, four men have been charged with illegally exporting “defense articles” to Venezuela in violation of the Arms Export Control Act, according to the FBI. If convicted, these men face a range of sentences, including fines of $250,000 to $1 million and jail from five to 10 years.

Miami New Times reports in a blog that the articles included parts for fighter jets and helicopters.

"Venezuelan Air Force officer Alberto Pichardo worked out of the acquisitions office. He conspired with former Venezuelan pilot and Pembroke Pines resident Freddy Arguelles to buy a list of military aircraft and missile detonation parts, according to their indictment filed in Florida Southern District Court," New Times writes.

The news comes just after the June 22 meeting in Caracas between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Read more: In Venezuela, an affair to remember

That visit rattled Venezuela’s Jewish community, which accuses Ahmadinejad of “denial of the Holocaust [and] threats to wipe Israel off the map,” reports Jewish news service JTA.

But surely another piece of news caused further vexation.

Venezuela allegedly has supplied Iran with "at least one" F-16, in 2006, Spain’s right-wing ABC newspaper reported. ABC ran the story on June 22, right in time for the Iran-Venezuela duet.

Here's a translation of the article's lede:

"Iran has been testing at least one F-16, an American-made fighter jet, to calibrate its radars and become familiar with its capabilities in the face of a possible attack by Israel or the United States, according to sources from a non-Western intelligence agency. The shipment from Venezuela of the equipment, dismantled and loaded on a Boeing 707, has been confirmed by an official of the Venezuelan Armed Forces who requested anonymity. Documentation shown to ABC by a third source suggests an agreement between the two countries to supply various F-16s within a close military cooperation between Caracas and Tehran."

The article was quickly picked up by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, which also ran the story — in English, for good measure.

GlobalPost has so far been unable to verify the veracity of ABC's information. Our Caracas correspondent says Venezuelan officials try to avoid speaking to journalists on the record about such matters.

But what's clear, for many outside observers, is that the leaders of Venezuela and Iran are too close for almost anyone else's comfort. A week before Ahmadinejad's visit to Venezuela, his second in under a year, Chavez had announced that Venezuela is building unmanned drone aircraft with Iran's help.

During their prior Caracas powwow, in January, as GlobalPost correspondent Girish Gupta reported, the pair joked about plotting to nuke Washington.

Venezuela's alleged F-16 deal to Iran or any other country should cause concern in Washington.

Haaretz writes:

"In 1983, years before Chavez came to power, Venezuela purchased 23 F-16 fighter jets. At least half of these have been transferred in recent years to other states, in breach of the 1983 agreement with the US."

However, Iran's jet fighter may be no match for a hypothetical Israeli invasion. According to Haaretz, "the model transferred is relatively dated. The Israeli Air Force currently uses more advanced models fitted with Israeli electronic systems."

According to New Times, the Florida federal indictment's trail stops at Venezuela, making no link to Iran. But it raises plenty of questions about what plans Chavez — or his allies — have for illicitly obtained, US-made warplanes.