Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Will Trump Break the Growing Iran-Venezuela Axis?

Despite a U.S. official’s warning that Washington was considering a response to the shipment, the first of five Iranian tankers carrying illicit fuel for Venezuela arrived near Caracas on May 25th – escorted by Venezuelan warships. Though Iran’s shipment of gasoline to the illegitimate Maduro regime in Caracas is in violation of US sanctions, no US warships have moved towards the tankers as they make their way to South America.

Venezuela and Iran hailed the shipment’s arrival as a victory; critics see it as a dangerous precedent.

In a prior piece, I argued that these Iranian ships steaming toward Venezuela could be the test of how serious this administration is about the illicit “gold-for oil” deal between the two countries, and about dealing with both rogue regimes.

Considering nothing was done to stop these tankers, the question is – has Trump gone soft on this critical issue?

The answer is hopefully not, but President Trump must act soon to keep these shipments from becoming a “new normal,” maintain US credibility, and prevent a greater Iranian-Venezuelan axis from developing.

As one expert at United Against Nuclear Iran, a watchdog group with close ties to the administration, noted in the Free Beacon, “Iran’s decision to send a five-strong fleet of sanctioned tankers carrying sanctioned petroleum to the Maduro regime is a brazen attempt to push the limits of U.S. patience.”

Daniel Roth added, “With a potential reactivation of Tehran’s network of South American terror sleeper cells, now is the time to build a strong and unified coalition in the Americas against the deadly Iranian regime.”

However, the maritime situation put the Trump administration in a tight spot – either it enforces its “maximum pressure” campaign on both nations by intercepting the tankers at sea, or it avoids a military conflict in South American waters.

It appears Trump has chosen the latter. But that does not mean this scenario is over yet. Instead, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), “U.S. officials are looking at measures that would deter Iran from repeating deliveries to Caracas, including imposing sanctions on the tankers’ crews—which could severely restrict employment opportunities and limit Iran’s ability to staff future vessels going to Venezuela.”

The goal appears to be to prevent this from escalating militarily while finding alternative strategies to prevent these shipments in the future.

The officials noted by the WSJ added that the U.S. could also try to confiscate the ships, through a U.S. court proceeding called “forfeiture action” for violating American law. However, that process, used last year to seize a Syria-bound Iranian tanker, proved unsuccessful.

And “with Venezuela unlikely to cooperate with such an order, the legal tool would have to be used when the vessels stop to refuel in ports on their way to Iran, the officials said.”

Meanwhile, the WSJ added, the U.S. Treasury Department, as part of a broader strategy to increase pressure on the regime, unveiled further sanctions against Iranian officials and government-linked businesses. The WSJ explained that Treasury “will continue to aggressively use its sanctions authorities to target malign activity and sanctions evasion.”

This means that those who engage in business with Venezuela’s oil industry risk serious sanctions.

In a related move, Treasury designated China-based Shanghai Saint Logistics Ltd. an agent for Iran’s ‘Mahan Air’ airline, citing “its recent flights to supply refining equipment to Venezuela in exchange for gold,” reported WSJ, adding, this will “restrict the company’s access to the international banking system and prohibits U.S.-based companies and individuals from transacting with it.”

All these are positive steps.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was also quoted in WSJ as correctly stating: “The Iranian regime is using Mahan Air to support an illegitimate and corrupt regime in Venezuela, just as it has done for the regime in Syria and for terrorist proxy groups throughout the Middle East.”

However, if the Trump administration truly believes this, then the president must act more decisively to punish these two rogue regimes and keep Iran from increasing its dangerously destabilizing presence in Venezuela.

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Paul Crespo
Paul Crespo
Paul Crespo is a defense and national security expert. He served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. He holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. Paul is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and a Contributor to American Defense News.

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