An indicted financier accused by the U.S. of developing Venezuela’s gold-for-food trade with Turkey is helping orchestrate a similar swap with Iran involving gold for gasoline products, according to seven people familiar with the matter.
Alex Nain Saab Moran, a Colombian whom U.S. authorities consider one of the most powerful men supporting Nicolas Maduro’s regime, traveled to Tehran with senior executives from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela last month, two of the people said. That was part of a deal in which Iran sends gasoline additives, parts and technicians to the South American nation in exchange for gold, they said.
Since then, as reported by Bloomberg, Venezuelan officials have loaded some 9 tons of gold — worth about $500 million — on jets owned by the Tehran-based carrier Mahan Air. Flight logs show more than a dozen trips from Iran to Venezuela over the past month.
Saab helped negotiate the Iran deal with Maduro’s new Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami, the people said. The two had previously worked together to strengthen Venezuela’s relationship with Turkey, which included shipments of at least $900 million in gold to the nation in 2018. By then, U.S. officials already feared some of the metal had made its way to Tehran in violation of sanctions.
“My client is a food business entrepreneur,” Maria Dominguez, Saab’s Miami-based lawyer, said by text message. “We deny any participation in the events you’re mentioning.” Asked if he’d visited Iran for his food business, she replied, “We have no further comment.”
Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Treasury Department didn’t address Saab’s role. She said only that the department will continue to use sanctions against Venezuela and Iran, adding, “Entities that continue to provide services to U.S.-designated Iranian airlines like Mahan Air remain at risk of sanctions actions.”
Officials at Venezuela’s Oil Ministry, PDVSA, Mahan Air and the Iranian foreign ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.
U.S. sanctions have severely restricted access by both Venezuela and Iran to the global financial network. Cash linked to Caracas often gets trapped in foreign accounts due to restrictions on money wiring. With Maduro’s allies in Moscow, Beijing and Ankara refraining from any large financial deals at the moment, Iran is emerging as an important partner for the regime.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was “deeply concerned” about the Venezuela-Iran flights. Some of them have made lengthy layovers in Algiers. U.S. officials have been urging Algeria, as well as neighbors Morocco and Tunisia, to deny Mahan Air the international flight corridor needed to reach Venezuela, people familiar with the matter said.
As El Aissami and Saab’s profiles rose in recent years, the Trump administration paid attention. In January 2017, Maduro tapped El Aissami to be vice president. A month later, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned him under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, alleging that he protected drug lords and oversaw a network of planes and ships exporting thousands of kilograms of cocaine. El Aissami denied the claims, calling them “miserable provocations.”
Last July, Saab was indicted on federal money-laundering charges that accuse him of bribing Venezuelan officials and funneling more than $350 million to overseas accounts as part of a food program intended to serve those going hungry in Venezuela.
At the time, Saab didn’t respond to requests for comment or to written questions submitted to two of his lawyers. In a 2017 interview with El Tiempo newspaper, he denied being involved in corrupt contracts with Venezuela. “I am an open book, and my accounts are clear and my conscience is clean,” he said.
Today, the Maduro regime’s only reliable sources of cash are oil and gold. Crude long accounted for more than 95% of the nation’s export revenue. The recent crash in prices coupled with U.S. sanctions and deteriorating facilities have made gold more valuable today. Last month, its price on the open market jumped to the highest in more than seven years.
(By Patricia Laya and Ben Bartenstein, with assistance from Fabiola Zerpa)