'Ripe for a showdown': As Iranian tankers close in, the stakes are rising in Venezuela

'Ripe for a showdown': As Iranian tankers close in, the stakes are rising in Venezuela
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at a press conference in Caracas, March 12, 2020.Associated Press
  • Iranian tankers are heading to Venezuela with much-needed gasoline, a shipment the US has warned it may take action against.
  • Venezuela has found common cause with regimes that oppose the US, like Iran, Russia, and China.
  • The return of "great-power competition" has raised the stakes of the crisis in the South American country.

The arrival of Iranian tankers carrying gasoline to Venezuela will be another link between two of the Trump administration's most implacable foes, but the exchange and the response underscore Venezuela's growing role as a venue for competition between the US and its rivals.

The first of the five tankers will arrive in the next few days and the rest by early June. Their 1.5 million barrels of gasoline are enough for 52 days in Venezuela, where coronavirus-related restrictions have reduced fuel consumption, according to Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodriguez.

Venezuela needs gas because mismanagement of its oil sector, exacerbated by US sanctions, has diminished supply. Iran, which has supplied materials to help restart Venezuelan refineries, needs to ease a fuel glut caused by declining global demand and strict US sanctions on its exports.

The US has said it is "looking at measures that can be taken" in response to the shipment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday that if Iranian tankers in the Caribbean or elsewhere "face trouble caused by the Americans," then the US "will also be in trouble."

'Ripe for a showdown': As Iranian tankers close in, the stakes are rising in Venezuela
US Navy littoral combat ship USS Detroit with guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen, USS Preble, USS Farragut, and a P-8A patrol aircraft in the Caribbean, May 11, 2020.US Navy/MCS 2nd Class Anderson W. Branch


US officials told The Wall Street Journal this week that they were still weighing a response. Some reportedly argued the US should only act if the shipments become a regular occurrence. Others advocated confiscation through legal means or direct intervention with military forces in the Caribbean, where the US has a number of ships and aircraft deployed for a counter-narcotics campaign announced in April.

At a UN Security Council meeting Wednesday, Russia said that the campaign was "troubling context."

"What is the real aim of the American navy parade in the Caribbean?" a Russian official said. "We also hope Washington fully realizes the risks of incidents when deploying [Navy destroyers] USS Lassen, USS Preble, and USS Farragut in an area where Iranian oil tankers are involved in legal activity near Venezuela."

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Thursday that he was not aware of any operations or plans in relation to the oil shipment, which he said was a violation of sanctions on Iran and Venezuela and an issue of "global concern."

Adm. Craig Faller, head of the US military command responsible for the region, declined to address the tankers on Monday during an online event hosted by Florida International University, saying only that he viewed "Iranian activity globally and in Venezuelan in specific as a concern."


Venezuela's defense minister said Thursday that the country's navy and air force would escort the tankers once they reached Venezuela's exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles from its coast. At Security Council meeting Thursday, Venezuela's ambassador said Caracas would regard an attempt to block the tankers as an "act of war."

'Ripe for some kind of showdown'

'Ripe for a showdown': As Iranian tankers close in, the stakes are rising in Venezuela
The Cardon refinery, which belongs to the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, in Punto Fijo, Venezuela July 22, 2016.Reuters/Carlos Jasso

Iran and Venezuela have longstanding ties, forged by Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who sought alliances to counter the US.

Tehran and Caracas are "both rogue regimes trying to kick dust in the face of Uncle Sam, finding common cause in their radical political programs but also their anti-American stances," Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank, said Thursday during the Florida International University event.

The likelihood of the Venezuelan and US militaries soon being in close proximity, along with Iranian tankers loaded with gasoline, has raised fears of escalation.


The situation is "just ripe for some kind of showdown, for some kind of even electoral gambit by the Trump administration," Arnson said, adding that "rogue regimes" like Iran "have been critical ... to Maduro's survival, and I think we're headed toward a potentially very dangerous moment."

Geoff Ramsey, the director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights advocacy group, said escalation would be "wildly irresponsible" and that the best way to address the gas crisis would be a negotiated humanitarian accord that includes some sanctions relief and greater international assistance.

'Ripe for a showdown': As Iranian tankers close in, the stakes are rising in Venezuela
US Navy freedom-class littoral combat ship USS Detroit in the Caribbean Sea, May 9, 2020.US Navy/MCS 2nd Class Anderson W. Branch

"These tankers have a month and a half's worth of gas supply, at most, so the best thing to do would be to sit back and point out that this shipment is not going to resolve the country's problems," Ramsey said, adding that resorting to importing gas from around the world isn't a win for Maduro "by any stretch of the imagination."

Acting against the tankers is unlikely to achieve what the US wants in Venezuela, according to Heather Heldman, a former State Department official.


"For the US, obviously the goal in Venezuela is regime change. But when you ask the question, does intervening in this shipment really advance that goal, I think the answer is uncertain at best and likely no," Heldman said.

A clash with the tankers would likely draw retaliation against the US or its assets in the Middle East without affecting Maduro's hold on power or improving the humanitarian or economic situation in Venezuela, Heldman said, adding that it may distract from the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus but would give Iran a propaganda victory.

"I think the best course of action is to assume a posture that prioritizes monitoring or surveillance and sends a message that that aggression is not welcome," Heldman said. "I don't think that there's anything to be gained by instigating any type of exchange of fire."

'Return of great power rivalry'

'Ripe for a showdown': As Iranian tankers close in, the stakes are rising in Venezuela
Maduro and Russian President Vladimir Putin.Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

The US and Iran exchanged fire in early January when the US assassinated a senior Iranian general in Iraq and Tehran responded by firing ballistic missiles as Iraqi bases, wounding US troops. That raised concerns about Iranian retaliation elsewhere, including in Latin America, where Iranian actors have long been active.


Iran now deepening its involvement in Venezuela "makes a lot of sense from a narrative point of view," said Heldman, now a managing partner at strategic advisory firm Luminae Group.

"Bringing these confrontations outside of Middle Eastern theaters ... and into the Western Hemisphere is a way to escalate broader tensions and force the US to engage with these powers much closer to home or in a different manner," Heldman added.

Juan Cruz, a former Trump administration National Security Council staffer, said Iran's engagement with Venezuela was "made perfectly" for its foreign policy.

"For a small investment, they get to stick their thumb in the eye of the US, and they played this piece over the gasoline with Venezuela brilliantly," Cruz said during the Florida International University event.

'Ripe for a showdown': As Iranian tankers close in, the stakes are rising in Venezuela
Venezuelan National Guard members during in an exercise at Garcia Hevia airport in La Fria, Tachira state, September 10, 2019.SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP/Getty Images


Iran is not the only one invested. Russia has given extensive political, military, and economic support, which has exposed it to US sanctions. China has given Venezuela military hardware and tens of billions of dollars in loans; while Beijing has stopped issuing new loans, it maintains diplomatic ties.

Cuba, dependent on Venezuelan fuel, provides security assistance credited with keeping Maduro in power, and Turkey has been an outlet for the Maduro government's sale of gold.

"The international dimension is absolutely critical" in Venezuela, Arnson said Thursday.

"The broader strategic takeaway for me, and the way that I'm positioning this for my clients," Heldman said, "is that we need to start ... thinking about Venezuela as the theater of choice for broader geopolitical confrontation between various parties that are vying to challenge the US hegemony in a variety of arenas."

Harold Trinkunas, an expert on the region at Stanford University, said the US would be unable to isolate Venezuela and that the growing geopolitical stakes there make it harder for the US to convince countries with interests counter to its own.


"What we have to remember is that Venezuela is now caught up in the return of great-power rivalry," Trinkunas said Thursday during the Florida International University event. "As China, the US, and Russia compete around the world, Venezuela is just one more place where this is happening. Just as we see this happening in Syria or Libya or Southeast Asia, Venezuela is now part of this."

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