WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. military official played down any role of Iranian special forces in Venezuela on Tuesday, saying Tehran’s activities there were diplomatic and commercial in nature -- and not military.
His comments appeared to contrast with a Pentagon report sent to Congress earlier in April. The report said the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Qods force had a growing Latin American presence, “particularly in Venezuela” -- a claim Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has strongly denied.
General Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees most of Latin America, told a group of defense reporters Iran did not have a military presence in Venezuela.
“We see a growing Iranian interest and engagement with Venezuela. ... It’s a diplomatic, it’s a commercial presence. I haven’t seen evidence of a military presence,” Fraser said.
Asked whether he was contradicting the Pentagon report and earlier comments to the same effect by the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Fraser said: “I don’t see it as a contradiction.”
“I see an increasing presence of Iran in Latin America. ... I don’t have all the details of what that means,” he said.
The United States has accused the Qods force of backing militants in Iraq and Lebanon. The U.S. military has also said the Qods force exerts an influence on Iranian diplomacy and the Pentagon report singled out Iran’s incoming ambassador to Iraq as a Qods officer.
Chavez, the most outspoken critic of the United States in Latin America, on Monday rejected the Pentagon report’s claim and questioned whether it wasn’t an “open threat against Venezuela.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on a trip to South America earlier this month he did not see Venezuela as a military threat, a sentiment Fraser underscored in his remarks in Washington.
“From a military standpoint, I don’t see that there is a military threat to the United States from Venezuela. ... I also don’t see that there is the potential for a conflict,” he said, while acknowledging tensions between Venezuela and neighboring Colombia, the strongest U.S. defense ally in South America.
Asked about Chavez’s political staying power in Venezuela, Fraser said: “He continues to solidify his position in power and so from everything I see he is solidly in place and I don’t see a capacity (within Venezuela) to oppose his position.”
Fraser said Southern Command was concerned about the Latin American presence of Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. But he played down any military role by the organizations within the region.
“Primarily all that we see right now is focused on supporting logistics support, financial support for parent organizations within the Mideast,” he said.
Editing by Todd Eastham