In a surreal turn of events last month, a plane carrying 23 Iranians described as “tour operators and influencers” touched down on Margarita Island - a paradisiacal peninsula off the coast of Venezuela, known for its crystalline waters, sandy beaches, “tax free” status and being a key strategic meeting point for Hezbollah - to usher in a new dawn for relations between the two countries.
The so-far unidentified visitors were greeted at the airport on June 13 by a troupe of dancers and uniformed guides, posing for photos in Panama hats before being whisked off on official functions. According to Venezuelan Tourism Minister Ali Padrón said they were there "as part of the Tourism Cooperation Implementation Program between Venezuela and the Islamic Republic of Iran".
Cumpliendo con el “Programa de Implementación en Cooperación Turística entre el MINTUR y el Ministerio de Patrimonio Cultural, Turismo y Artesanía de la República Islámica de Irán 2021-2023” hoy arriban a la isla de Margarita 23 turoperadores iraníes.— Alí Ernesto Padrón Paredes (@AliErnesto32) June 13, 2022
Media reports said the group were due to stay in Venezuela for two days, and attend a business roundtable at the island’s Venetur hotel. It came five days before direct flights were due to begin between Caracas and Tehra, officially to promote “tourism, trade and cultural exchange”, and at a time of ramped-up cooperation between the two heavily-sanctioned governments.
It also came at a time of alarm over the Iranian state’s apparent comings and goings in South America. On the very same day as the “tour operators” arrived on Margarita Island, another plane - formerly the property of Iran’s sanctioned Mahan Air, transferred to Venezuela’s Emtrasur - was grounded in Argentina after flying covertly from Buenos Aires to Cordoba with its transponder turned off. Onboard was a mixed Iranian-Venezuelan crew including an IRGC Quds Force commander, Gholamreza Ghasemi.
In fact, IranWire can reveal that the plane that landed at Margarita Island’s Santiago Mariño Airport, an Airbus A340-600 with the registration YV3535, also previously belonged to Mahan Air. Then registered EP-MMI, it was later handed to Conviasa, the Venezuelan state airline.
Mahan Air is blacklisted by the US Office for allegedly "support[ing] the efforts of the Iranian regime to foment regional violence through terrorism and its weapons programs". Specifically, the airline is accused of transporting lethal cargo to Syria on behalf of the IRGC, and weapons, funds and logistical equipment for Hezbollah. It was also said to have transported militants and Quds Force operatives including the late General Ghasem Soleimani.
The Treasury has also accused Mahan Air of transferring “Iranian technicians and technical equipment to Venezuela to support the illegitimate Maduro regime’s efforts to revive energy production ruined by corruption and mismanagement”.
The entire fleet of Conviasa has also been sanctioned for allegedly having been used for political purposes, including the transfer of “corrupt officials” to destinations including North Korea, Cuba and Iran to “promote support for anti-democratic efforts”.
After the plane’s arrival on Margarita Island on June 13, nothing more was heard from either the Iranian authorities or Venezuela’s Ministry of Tourism about what they did during the visit. Nor were they mentioned in the media. Were some of the group “influencers” as described, they should have been posting prolifically on social media, which has so far remained quiet.
No reports, pictures or records of the conference at the Venetur hotel were published either. This is unusual for Venezuela, where Ministry of Tourism-sponsored events tend to be publicized in the press afterward (for instance, a similar event was held - without an Iranian delegation - in Maturin city on June 18, which was duly reported on). IranWire called the Venetur hotel about the conference and was told it did not share information about “private events”. When reminded that this was a government-organized conference, the answer remained the same.
Margarita Island: A Safe Haven?
Margarita Island is, admittedly, a tourist destination. But it is one of dozens - from the magnificent Angel Falls to Ciudad Bolívar to the shining beaches and reef of Los Roques archipelago - that the group of 23 could have gone to for a photo-op and conference. The government and proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Margarita Island, though, go back some way.
In 2012, in his testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate, the then-US ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Roger Noriega, explained why Isla Margarita (to use its local name) had managed to outshine the Tri-Border Area in terms of its usefulness to Tehran and Hezbollah.
In recent years Venezuela has provided Hezbollah with material support for its activities in the Middle East. Known as the “duty free zone” of the Caribbean, Margaria Island provides a safe zone for Hezbollah to conduct illicit financial transactions and drug-trafficking, as well as being the base of operations for the Nasr al Din clan: a group of Lebanese origin that actively support the militant group.
The clan’s head, Ghazi Nasr al Din, had a friendly, personal relationship with former President Hugo Chávez and is now close to Tarek El Aissami, current Minister of Industry under Maduro. Nasr al Din also oversees a network dedicated to expanding Hezbollah's influence in Venezuela and other parts of Latin America.
Noriega’s testimony also alleged that one of Ghazi’s brothers, Abdallah Nasr al Din (a former member of the Venezuelan congress, no less), is based on Margarita Island and manages multiple money laundering businesses, including ventures associated with Hezbollah.
He further claimed that another brother, Oday Nasr al Din, had overseen paramilitary training centers on the island, in which Venezuelan recruits from the so-called “círculos bolivarianos” - ardent Chavismo supporters who inform on other Venezuelans - are groomed, introduced to the activities to Hezbollah and sometimes invited to Iran to complete their training.
What the unnamed “tour operators and influencers” got up to on Margarita Island is anyone’s guess. The visit may have been what it claimed to be, a genuine attempt to forge new strategic and economic bonds between two human rights-abusing pariah states. But the choice of location was symbolic at the very least. And the silence around the trip may yet prove to speak volumes.