Iran's involvement in Venezuela has increased significantly in recent months, to include sending members of its elite Quds Force into the country, according to a top U.S. military leader who oversees operations in the region.
Venezuela and Iran appear to be growing closer as the U.S. puts continued pressure on both countries. Iran's involvement in the South American country has "grown in intensity over the last few months," Navy Adm. Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, said Monday.
"Iran sees an ability and opportunity to create mischief here in our neighborhood in this hemisphere, and also an opportunity for economic and other leverage," Faller said during an event hosted by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. "It's not just oil deliveries."
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Iran has also opened a supermarket chain in Venezuela, Faller said, and is increasing its military-to-military involvement there. That includes sending members of Iran's Quds Force, which gathers intelligence and engages in unconventional warfare, to the continent, he added.
"[That is significant] and alarming from Iran in this hemisphere," Faller said.
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have been brewing in the last year, with several events leaving the countries on high alert for potential conflict. Both Iran and Venezuela have been slapped with crippling sanctions imposed by the U.S. during the Trump administration.
Millions of people have fled Venezuela as a result.
Iran and Venezuela have been teaming up to combat the U.S. sanctions. Iran has for months dispatched oil tankers to Venezuela to alleviate significant gasoline shortages there.
A third tanker in an Iranian flotilla arrived in Venezuela this weekend, bringing about 820,000 barrels of fuel to the country, Reuters reported Sunday.
Last week, the U.S. Navy sent another destroyer to the Caribbean Sea to challenge what the service called "Venezuela's excessive maritime claims in international waters." It marked the Navy's second freedom-of-navigation operation in the region in less than three months. Another destroyer carried out a similar operation in international waters near Venezuela in July.
Iran, along with Russia, Cuba, China, Iran and North Korea, have supported Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. U.S. leaders say Maduro runs an illegitimate regime, and have backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, recognizing him as the legitimate president.
Faller said influence from some of the other countries that support Maduro continues in Venezuela. China is active there, and Russia has hundreds of troops in the country, where Faller said they "day in and day out ... undermine U.S. interests."
-- Gina Harkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.
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