23 May 2020   Leave a comment

There are five Iranian oil tankers approaching Venezuela’s 200 exclusive economic zone (EEZ). There is irony in oil exports to Venezuela, home to one of the largest oil reserves in the world. But the economic chaos in Venezuela due to the mismanagement of the Maduro regime and the economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the US has led to gasoline shortages in the country, compounding the misery in the country. The Guardian reports:

“Iran is supplying about 1.53m barrels of gasoline and alkylate to Venezuela, according to both governments, sources and calculations made by TankerTrackers.com based on the vessels’ draft levels.

“The shipments have caused a diplomatic standoff between Iran and Venezuela and the US, as both nations are under US sanctions. Washington is considering measures in response, according to a senior US official who did not elaborate on any options being weighed.

“The US recently beefed up its naval presence in the Caribbean for what it said was an expanded anti-drug operation. A Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said on Thursday he was not aware of any operations related to the Iranian cargoes.”

The US could probably seize those tankers in the EEZ (or, more likely, just before they enter the EEZ), but it is unclear what interests such actions would serve. Both Russia and China have supported the Maduro regime, and Iran would achieve little more than a symbolic poke in the US eye. Additionally, both Cuba and Turkey have offered Venezuela support. The US currently does not have any good relations with any of those five states, but it also does not have much support for its sanctions against either Venezuela or Iran among its closest allies.

Venezuela has alerted the UN Security Council to the imminent use of force in the Caribbean, as reported by the Pakistani newspaper, The Nation:

“Venezuela’s permanent envoy to the UN Samuel Moncada has warned of a threat which he argued is posed by Washington to Iranian tankers bound for the South American country.

“In a tweet on Friday, Moncada announced that Venezuela had alerted the UN Security Council and its Secretary General Antonio Guterres of ‘the threat of imminent use of military force by the United States against Iranian vessels carrying Venezuelan-directed gasoline’. 

“In another tweet, Moncada insisted that an ‘armed attack on tankers, exercising free trade and navigation between sovereign nations, is a crime of aggression’.

“He added that ‘a naval blockade is aggravated by the fact that it aims to deprive an entire population of its vital means of subsistence’ and that ‘it is a crime of extermination’.”

The US has maintained sanctions on Venezuela for over ten years for a variety of issues: drug-trafficking, violations of international humanitarian law, and terrorism. Venezuela has been paying Iran in gold. Bloomberg reported on 30 April:

“Government officials piled some 9 tons of gold — an amount equal to about $500 million — on Tehran-bound jets this month as payment for Iran’s assistance in reviving Venezuela’s crippled gasoline refineries, the people said. The shipments, which resulted in a sudden drop in Venezuela’s published foreign reserve figures, leave the crisis-ravaged country with just $6.3 billion in hard-currency assets, the lowest amount in three decades.”

The US sanctions on Venezuela are similar to those imposed on Iran–they penalize countries which do business with the state or individuals associated with the state. In both cases, the sanctions are broad-based and level a heavy burden on the ordinary citizens in each country.

At this point I would be surprised if the US tried to interfere with the tankers. The materials will only supply Venezuela for about two months and it seems clear that Venezuela does not have more gold to pay Iran. Thus, the risks do not seem commensurate with the benefit of additional pressure on the Maduro regime. But I have often been surprised by the foreign policy moves of the current administration.

Posted May 23, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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