Facing a parliamentary vote to oust him and a call for new elections, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Jan. 4 replaced Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz with regime loyalist Tareck El Aissami, the governor of Aragua State. El Aissami's appointment comes at a critical time for the embattled Bolivarian regime. Venezuela's economy is spiraling into chaos under the crushing weight of triple-digit inflation, basic commodities shortages, widespread corruption and violent crime.
Maduro is relying on El Aissami to tighten the regime's grip on power. As it turns out, that is in no small part thanks to his Iran and Hezbollah connections.
Brig. Gen. Mohammad-Reza Naqdi, the new cultural adviser to the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) chief commander and a former chief of the IRGC's Basij militia, recently announced that a Latin American team visited Iran to learn how to form a Basij-like mobilization force, praising “Iran's perseverance and success.”
Naqdi did not disclose further details about where this delegation came from, but Venezuela is a likely candidate.
In 2012, the Spanish daily ABC published an extensive expose accusing Venezuela of organizing, training and arming popular militias to control possible street unrest ahead of that year's presidential elections. The people's units, named REMI after the Spanish acronym for Fast Deployment Networks (Redes de Movilización Immediata), were modeled after the Iran Basij, which played a critical role in crushing the 2009 post-election protests in Iran.
Days after his appointment, Maduro nominated El Aissami as the head of a newly established committee, which he aptly named the “anti-coup command.” Maduro explained that the command will fight right-wing conspiracies.
In fact, the command — a committee comprising the defense minister, the interior minister, the head of national intelligence and the second most powerful figure in the regime after Maduro — is really tasked with suppressing any protest movement in the country. Helping Venezuela succeed in this respect is a key Iranian interest.
For Iran and Hezbollah, Bolivarian continuity in Venezuela is crucial to their ongoing Latin American operations, of which Caracas is a springboard to the rest of the region. For Maduro, Tehran represents a key security guarantee for his regime's survival.
That is where El Aissami comes in.
Despite the Baathist family background — his father headed the Venezuelan branch of the Iraqi Baath Party — and his Lebanese Druze origins, El Aissami seems to prefer the Islamist Shiite revolutionary Hezbollah and Iran over the Baath's supposedly secular pan-Arabism.
Like his Islamic revolutionary role models, he used violence to advance his politics. While a university student leader, he mingled with guerrilla movements and used his leadership role to provide them with cover for militant and criminal activities.
Despite such radical associations, or perhaps because of them, at the age of 29, El Aissami became the head of ONIDEX, Venezuela's agency in charge of passport and naturalization services. He used this position to issue fake passports, personal documents and identity cards to Arab and Iranian operatives, who thus entered and travelled across the region as Venezuelan nationals. Some went on to join his intricate network of businesses in Panama and Venezuela.
El Aissami later became deputy minister of interior and public security, was elected a member of parliament, and soon after rose to the rank of minister of justice and interior. Throughout these positions, he facilitated Iranian penetration into Latin America.
Once in government, he coordinated this endeavor with another Venezuelan of Lebanese origin, Ghazi Atef Nassereddine, who served as Venezuela's chargé d'affaires in Damascus and as an embassy political counselor in Beirut while El Aissami was at the interior ministry. Nassereddine has been under U.S. Treasury sanctions since 2008 for facilitating Hezbollah operations in Latin America, first as a diplomat in the Levant and later from Caracas as the president of the Iranian-established Shiite Islamic Center.
Opposition figures have accused both El Aissami and Nassereddine of recruiting young Arab-Venezuelan members of the ruling party to undergo paramilitary training in South Lebanon with Hezbollah.
As if this were not enough, El Aissami reportedly facilitated drug trafficking, a crime for which he is being investigated in the U.S. He was named as a key contact in investigations implicating two nephews of Maduro's wife and another Venezuelan official who facilitated the logistics of their cocaine trafficking operation.
Intelligence reports from Latin American services also suggest that El Aissami's entourage is connected to the Ayman Joumaa drug network. Joumaa was designated by the U.S. Treasury in 2011 under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act and is a key figure in the Lebanese-Canadian Bank case, where Hezbollah laundered drug money through West African businesses and U.S. used car dealerships.
The U.S. should neither ignore nor downplay these developments. Venezuela is a failed state and a gateway for organized crime. The fact that its thuggish regime is now entrusting its survival to a facilitator of Iranian interests in Latin America should make the incoming administration prioritize Venezuela's future in its foreign policy and seek to weaken Iran's influence in Caracas.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi.