I certainly won’t shed a tear should Hugo Chavez succumb to cancer. Instead, I will look at his passing as an opportunity to bring accountability to the policy and intelligence community. Just as during the Cold War, there were anti-communists and anti-anti-communists, today the same dynamic is in play when it comes to counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation. Too many academics and analysts have dismissed the growing cooperation between Iran and Venezuela. Behind-the-scenes, Chavez has allegedly even provided a safe-zone for Iran to conduct some nuclear work. There’s that persistent problem of the Iranian-built tractor factory in Venezuela which has never produced a tractor, but somehow merits imposition of a no-fly zone over its facilities.
When Hugo Chavez dies, we will finally have a reckoning for analysts. Who was right? Who was wrong? Who dismissed reports of Iranian involvement in Venezuela and who turned a blind eye to the fact Iran might work with other rogue leaders to farm out nuclear work. Alternately, were those concerned about Iran’s behavior simply alarmists in their analysis?
On a broader scale, however, it’s time for those who fancy themselves counter-proliferation experts as well as the anti-counter-proliferation (i.e., anti-sanctions) side to have a serious discussion: Chavez’s death may lead to a treasure trove of new intelligence about Iran’s activities and intentions. If Iranian activities in Venezuela were meant to augment Iranian terrorism or the Islamic Republic’s nuclear capabilities, what should be the consequences for Iran and for U.S. diplomacy? Will those who until this time seek to give the benefit of the doubt to Iran’s regime commit themselves to broader, perhaps even regime-crippling sanctions? Can we finally put aside this fiction that Iran’s nuclear program is meant only for civilian energy purposes? Will it be time to have a serious discussion about the need for regime change in Iran?