Flashpoint / Global 6 August 2020 Venezuela Share Facebook Twitter Email Print Back To Map I. Why it Matters Venezuela is mired in political conflict between President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition led by Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S., along with most EU member states and much of Latin America, regard as the country's rightful leader. Washington views Iranian assistance to the Maduro government as a challenge to its role and interests in the Americas. II. Recent Developments 6 August 2020 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that “Brian Hook has decided to step down from his role as the U.S. Special Representative for Iran and Senior Advisor to the Secretary”. Asserting that Hook had “achieved historic results countering the Iranian regime”, Pompeo indicated that “following a transition period with Brian Hook, Elliott Abrams will assume the position of Special Representative for Iran, in addition to his responsibilities as Special Representative for Venezuela”. A U.S. diplomatic spokesperson described Abrams’ dual role as “a recognition of the growing confluence of threats from rogue international actors to the U.S.”. Iran’s diplomatic spokesperson reacted to the appointment by saying: “no difference between John Bolton, Brian Hook or Elliott Abrams; when it comes to the U.S. Iran policy, American officials have bitten off more than they could chew. Same applies to Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump and their successors”. View More 30 July 2020 A senior U.S. diplomat indicated that “any presence of the IRGC or the Islamic Republic in this hemisphere is not something we look very favorably on”. Reacting to the opening in Caracas of a supermarket by an Iranian company linked to Iran’s defence ministry, the official maintained that “this is like an alliance of pariah states. I would be sorely surprised if Venezuela is able to obtain much benefit from Iran… Iran is willing to play around. It’s willing to sell stuff to Venezuela when Venezuela really doesn’t have the money to be buying very much”. He further warned that “Iran is not going to save Venezuela from the situation it’s put itself in, but it does put itself in a more dangerous situation by playing these games, and they both ought to think seriously about that”. View More 28 July 2020 The U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, remarked that “we’ve seen recently the regime begin to build its relationship with Iran. Iran, Venezuela, a pair of pariah states. Iran and North Korea now – North Korea and Venezuela. And I think one of the other impacts besides the potential sanctions themselves is reminding countries around the world about the nature of this regime and the partners that it seeks around the world”. He further noted “the regime is working very actively with Iran both to improve the output at its refineries and simply to buy gasoline… they also import diesel”. View More 15 July 2020 The U.S. Navy confirmed that a guided missile destroyer had “challenged Venezuela’s excessive maritime claim in international waters during a successful freedom of navigation operation in the Caribbean Sea… The illegitimate Maduro regime improperly claims excessive controls over those international waters, which extend three miles beyond the 12-mile territorial sea, a claim that is inconsistent with international law”. View More 15 July 2020 Commenting on Iran’s relations with Venezuela, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remarked that “they’re trying to sell them gasoline. They’re trying to move resource to them. It’s difficult to heavily sanctioned nations… We’re making it as difficult as possible for them to violate those sanctions”. “We don’t always succeed, but I’m confident that we will continue to raise the cost for those two to do business together and reduce the risk that they will come to each other’s salvation”, Pompeo added. View More 10 July 2020 The U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, remarked that “as we look at the newly energised ties between Iran and Venezuela in our hemisphere, we're very concerned about it… We are determined that this relationship does not become a new form of instability in our hemisphere”. Hook further indicated that “I think the maritime community knows that if you get a phone call to move fuel to Venezuela, that's an offer that you should not accept… We’re going to continue to sanction any sanctionable activity. We have really dried up the maritime community that's available to Iran to move this stuff. We de-flagged all of Iran’s tankers”. “They have the goal, obviously, of getting the fuel to Maduro and then getting paid for it, but that's an increasingly big challenge they face”, he added. View More 3 July 2020 An Iranian government spokesperson indicated that “if the government and people of Venezuela need foods and basic goods in the future, Iran will send them if required according to its potential… U.S. threats will have no impact on our determination to do free trade and business with Venezuela”. On 6 July, a senior Maduro aide visited Tehran and met with the Iranian presidential chief of staff, who remarked that “we have to prevent any harm to the people’s well-being by the enemies’ sanctions through solidarity and expansion of cooperation and relations”. View More 2 July 2020 The U.S. Justice Department announced that a judge had “issued a warrant to seize all Iranian gasoline” aboard four vessels – Bella, Bering, Luna and Pandi – “based on a probable cause showing of forfeitability”. Authorities “allege[d] a scheme involving multiple parties affiliated with the IRGC to covertly ship Iranian gasoil, obtained via ship-to-ship transfers, to Venezuela”, and contended that “profits from petroleum sales support the IRGC’s full range of nefarious activities”. View More 26 June 2020 Iran’s oil minister indicated that the 24 June U.S. designation of Iranian tanker captains who had delivered fuel to Venezuela “was not unexpected; first, the U.S. promised them money which they did not accept, then, they threatened and sanctioned them”. “In order to continue exporting [fuel to Venezuela], we need to see how the negotiations between the two countries will proceed”, he added, confirming that Iran had received partial payment for the earlier shipments. View More 24 June 2020 The U.S. designated “the captains of the five ships that U.S.-sanctioned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) used to deliver Iranian gasoline to the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that “the rogue regimes in Caracas and Tehran are unified by their penchant for repressing their people, corruption, self-enrichment and gross mismanagement of their peoples’ wealth… Iran’s continued support to Venezuela is yet another instance of Iran wasting its people’s resources on ill-conceived foreign adventurism that prolongs suffering abroad”. He went on caution that “mariners who are considering work with Iran and Venezuela should understand that aiding these oppressive regimes is simply not worth the risk. Individuals and entities will face consequences from the U.S. if they do business with the Iranian regime, Maduro or his cronies”. Iran’s diplomatic spokesperson opined that the designations “signal the miserable failure of the so-called ‘maximum pressure’… Iran and Venezuela remain steadfast in countering unlawful American sanctions”. View More 23 June 2020 U.S Southern Command announced that a U.S. destroyer had conducted a “[freedom of navigation] operation in international waters outside Venezuela’s 12 nautical-mile territorial jurisdiction… The ship lawfully navigated an area the illegitimate Maduro regime falsely claims to have control over”. Venezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez subsequently warned the U.S. by saying: “if you dare to carry out acts of law in the sea that corresponds to Venezuela, you will receive a response worthy of our patriots”. View More 22 June 2020 The Golsan, an Iranian vessel that Iran’s ambassador in Caracas said was “carrying food to open the first Iranian supermarket in Venezuela”, reached Venezuelan waters. View More 15 June 2020 A U.S. diplomatic spokesperson asserted that “the international business community should already be aware of the legal risk of any transactions with the illegitimate and tyrannical regime of Nicolas Maduro… It is no surprise that the deeply corrupt and oppressive Iranian regime would find a kindred spirit with Maduro’s brutal kleptocracy”. View More 13 June 2020 The Maduro government urged the release of a Colombian citizen, sanctioned and indicted by the U.S., who was arrested in Cape Verde while reportedly en route to Iran. View More 10 June 2020 IRGC Commander Hossein Salami declared that “the biggest exercise of our might was imposition of our will and our ships' move in free waters from the Persian Gulf to Venezuela”. Relatedly, a senior Iranian diplomat maintained that “as long as the two countries [ie, Iran and Venezuela] are determined to continue trade, certainly these exchanges will continue and if anyone tries to disturb this trend, they should know that the move will be reciprocated”. View More 8 June 2020 A senior IRGC official indicated that “in the Atlantic Ocean, where access [to ships] is normally more difficult, monitoring the position of the oil tankers [en route to Venezuela] and the situation in their surroundings was put on the agenda of the Noor satellite, and was accomplished”. View More 8 June 2020 A flight from Iran carrying “different types of testing kits” landed in Venezuela; Iran’s ambassador in Caracas asserted that “we are seeing the arrival of these materials to strengthen Venezuela in its fight against coronavirus”. View More 7 June 2020 Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani asserted that “our tankers are returning home after completing their mission to Venezuela. This means that the strategy of active resistance has been effective, and the fools who sought our siege are now themselves besieged by the power of Iran”. “Trump and Hook’s calls for talks is the proof of this”, he added. The following day, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei addressed the tanker crews to say they had “brought glory to the country”. View More 2 June 2020 The U.S. designated “four companies for operating in the oil sector of the Venezuelan economy” and “identified four vessels as blocked property”. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin indicated that “the illegitimate Maduro regime has enlisted the help of maritime companies and their vessels to continue the exploitation of Venezuela’s natural resources for the regime’s profit”. Relatedly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged that “the U.S. will continue to increase pressure on Maduro and his enablers until a democratic transition begins”. View More 1 June 2020 Iran’s diplomatic spokesperson stated that “Iran practices its free trade rights with Venezuela and we are ready to send more ships if Caracas demands more supplies from Iran”. Relatedly, a senior Iranian diplomat maintained that Venezuela offered “good markets for the Iranian oil sector and downstream products… If they agree, we plan to continue our cooperation with them in this sector”. He also indicated that “Venezuela has demanded for help in repairing some of its installations and their demands are under study”. Meanwhile, Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani declared that “the claim of U.S. superpower, threat of waging war, assassination and sanctions were turned ‘null and void’ by the presence of Iranian oil tankers in Caribbean”. View More 31 May 2020 The Clavel, the last of five Iranian fuel tankers en route to Venezuela, entered Venezuelan waters. Two of the tankers departed Venezuela, one bound for Iran and the other for an unannounced destination. View More 30 May 2020 The Venezuelan ambassador to Iran underlined that “the Iranian oil tankers entered Venezuela amid heightened tension with the U.S… transfer of fuel shows not only the business relations between two independent countries but also shows that unliteral sanctions by the White House will not prevent this legal action”. Describing relations between Tehran and Caracas as “in the best state”, the ambassador opined that “success in delivery of the fuel shows Iran’s geopolitical power which challenges the U.S.’s hegemony and shows the capability to create solidarity in the international energy market… successful delivery of the fuel is a victory for diplomacy”. View More 29 May 2020 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated that “we did manage to stop… four of seven or four of nine of the vessels that were bringing gasoline [from Iran] to Maduro”. Acknowledging that “whether it’s North Korea or Venezuela or Iran, we never get perfect [sanctions] enforcement”, Pompeo asserted that “there will be people who engage in these activities, who try to violate American sanctions, who will ultimately be held accountable for what took place”. Estimating that “this was just enough gasoline for a couple of weeks”, Pompeo added: “We know that this will happen again… the world should watch as we do everything we can to make sure that we enforce these sanctions in ways that make sense for the American people”. View More 29 May 2020 Discussing Iranian fuel shipments to Venezuela, the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, confirmed that “we’ve alerted the shipping community around the world, ship owners, ship captains, ship insurers, and we’ve alerted ports along the way between Iran and Venezuela… I do not think that you will find ship owners and insurers and captains and crews willing to engage in these transactions in the future”. View More 28 May 2020 An unnamed U.S. official indicated that “we have been in contact with the shipowners” of two Venezuela-bound tankers bearing Iranian fuel, “and they are under great risk for sanctions”. The official further indicated “currently, the ships are not headed to Venezuela”. View More 27 May 2020 The Faxon, the fourth of five Iranian fuel tankers en route to Venezuela, entered Venezuelan waters and proceeded with Venezuelan military escort. View More 27 May 2020 President Rouhani remarked that the U.S. sought “to interfere in the normal trade between Iran and a friendly country [ie, Venezuela] in carrying an oil product, and this is something that has nothing to do with them and is not compatible with any law”. Rouhani went on to assess that “if there had been no unity within the country between the government, other branches and the armed forces, the Americans might have succeeded in their aggression and [causing] another Gibraltar in the Caribbean, but unity and solidarity prevented such a thing from happening”. View More 26 May 2020 The Petunia, third of five Iranian fuel tankers en route to Venezuela, entered Venezuelan waters and proceeded with Venezuelan military escort. View More 25 May 2020 The Forest, second of five Iranian fuel tankers en route to Venezuela, entered Venezuelan waters and proceeded with Venezuelan military escort. The same day, the Venezuelan Oil Minister remarked that “we are fortunate to be able to count on Iran these times”. View More 24 May 2020 The Fortune, one of five Iranian fuel tankers en route to Venezuela, entered Venezuelan waters and proceeded with Venezuelan military escort. President Nicolás Maduro emphasised that his country and Iran had “the right to trade freely”, adding: “revolutionary peoples who will never kneel down before the North American empire”. The U.S. State Department contended that “Venezuelans need free and fair presidential elections leading to democracy and economic recovery, not Maduro’s expensive deals with another pariah state”. View More 23 May 2020 President Rouhani asserted that “some U.S. actions in different parts of the world have created unacceptable conditions, but by no means we do not initiate escalation of tensions and conflict”. He further warned that “if our tankers in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world face any problems caused by the Americans, they will face problems as well… We have always considered the legitimate right to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity and to serve our national interests, and we hope that the Americans will not make a mistake”. Rouhani also emphasised that “the security of our region, especially maritime security in the region, is provided by the countries of the region, and we have always stated our readiness to cooperate more with our neighbours”. View More 19 May 2020 Defence Minister Amir Hatami maintained that “any disruption to [our] tankers is against international regulations and security… the Americans and others know that we will certainly not hesitate to react to this issue, and if the harassment intensifies and continues, it will certainly face a decisive response”. The following day, the Venezuelan Defence Minister indicated that when the Iranian tankers “enter our exclusive economic zone, they will be escorted by Bolivarian National Armed Forces boats and planes to welcome them in and thank the Iranian people for their solidarity and cooperation”. View More 17 May 2020 After a U.S. official indicated that Washington was “looking at measures that can be taken” in response to Iranian tankers en route to Venezuela, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in a letter to the UN Secretary-General, “warned the U.S. about sending troops to the Caribbean Sea with the aim of interfering with the transfer of Iran’s fuel to Venezuela”. Zarif also “underlined Iran’s right to adopt appropriate and necessary measures to counter these threats”. The Iranian foreign ministry also summoned the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, whose country represents U.S. interests, and requested he “relay to Washington’s officials Iran’s serious warning over any possible threat by the U.S. against Iranian tankers”. According to the foreign ministry, a senior Iranian diplomat told the ambassador that “any threat against Iranian tankers will be met with Iran’s immediate and firm response, and the U.S. government will be responsible for its consequences”. View More 8 May 2020 A U.S. diplomatic spokesperson argued that Iran’s “deeply troubled weapons of mass destruction proliferator Mahan Air, which supports terrorism and the Maduro regime [in Venezuela], is also reportedly suppressing air crew concerns and spreading COVID-19. Avoid the coronavirus and sanction risks by keeping Mahan Air out of your country”. View More 29 April 2020 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reported that “over the last few days, multiple aircraft belonging to [Iran’s] Mahan Air have transferred unknown support to the Maduro regime [in Venezuela]... This is the same terrorist airline that Iran uses to move weapons and fighters around the Middle East”. He further asserted that “these flights must stop, and countries should do their part to deny overflights, just as many have already denied landing rights to this sanctioned airline”. Relatedly, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, argued that “the [Iranian] regime regularly claims things that are false, including that they were helping Venezuela's oil industry. But I think we can probably safely assume it's not limited to that”. Iran’s Foreign Ministry subsequently posited that U.S. policies in Venezuela “have ended in failure”, and that Washington “is making such accusations in an attempt to obstruct the Venezuelan government’s plans for reviving that country’s refineries and producing oil products, including gasoline, a shortage of which has been caused by the cruel American sanctions”. View More 13 April 2020 President Rouhani told his Venezuelan counterpart that “the oppressive and illegal sanctions of the U.S. in the field of oil production against Iran and Venezuela are contrary to international rules and human principles”. Relatedly, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif indicated that “despite U.S. sanctions, Iran has made significant progress in fighting the [COVID-19] pandemic, thanks to its human and scientific resources, and friends abroad. COVID-19 was an opportunity for the U.S. to kick its addiction to sanctions. Instead, it will now live in infamy in the memory of our people”. View More See more III. Background Since January 2019, Venezuela has had two competing presidencies and two starkly different views on how its political struggle should be resolved. De facto power and control of almost all the country’s institutions are in the hands of President Nicolás Maduro, whose claim to legitimacy is based on a controversial re-election in May 2018, regarded by the opposition and its international allies as a sham. The opposition – led by Juan Guaidó, who is recognised as acting president by 59 countries, including the U.S. – insists that an early, credible presidential election be held under international observation and demands that Maduro step down before then. Iran backs Maduro, and sees in the U.S. effort to dislodge his government echoes of Washington’s Iran policy. “The excessive demands and bullying of U.S. statesmen have always put pressure against the independent and freedom-seeking nations such as Iran and Venezuela”, President Hassan Rouhani told Maduro in April 2020. But while Maduro has succeeded in maintaining power, decades of mismanagement and corruption have brought the country’s vital, state-owned oil industry to its knees; combined with the effects of U.S. sanctions and a collapse in the oil price, the result is a critical shortage of funds for food or fuel, let alone for coping with a medical emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Iran, which like Venezuela is under severe U.S. sanctions, has in turn been stepping up its direct assistance to the Maduro government by dispatching refinery equipment by air and gasoline by sea. IV. Analysis Alliance of the Sanctioned: Iran’s May 2020 fuel shipments to Venezuela became a cause célèbre in Tehran. When U.S. officials suggested they were “looking at measures that can be taken” in response to five tankers underway, Iran summoned the Swiss ambassador, whose government has a protecting power mandate in the Islamic Republic, to convey a “serious warning” to Washington against impeding the ships; likewise, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote to the UN Secretary-General expressing “Iran’s right to adopt appropriate and necessary measures to counter these threats”. After the ships began to arrive in Venezuela, Iranian officials described the episode as “a main chapter in ending unilateralism”, while hardliner media trumpeted a U.S. “humiliation in the Caribbean”. Viewed from Tehran, the burgeoning Venezuelan connection is a win-win proposition, by which the absence of a U.S. reply results from standing up to the “maximum pressure” campaign, while any attempts to impede the shipments amount to evidence of U.S. domineering. Colluding Adversaries: Even prior to Iran’s dispatch of equipment and gasoline in April and May 2020, the Trump administration was raising concerns over Tehran’s influence in Latin America generally, and Venezuela in particular. In February 2019, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that “people don’t recognise that Hizbollah has active cells – the Iranians are impacting the people of Venezuela and throughout South America. We have an obligation to take down that risk for America”. Two months later, Pompeo contended that “there’s no doubt Iranian money remains in South American being used for malign purposes, supporting Hizbollah, supporting transnational criminal organisations, supporting efforts at terrorism throughout the region”. An uptick in activity between Tehran and Caracas is an irritant for the U.S., but more as a symbolic effort to undermine its policies against both countries than as a meaningful strategic challenge. However, a senior advisor to Guaidó claimed that Iran’s cargos are a prelude to Iran helping Maduro establish a listening post along Venezuela’s Caribbean coast, while a senior U.S. official mused that “one could imagine them [ie, the Iranians] sending other things… weapons, who knows”. V. Scenarios and Recommendations Two allies divided by an ocean: If Iran’s overt assistance to the Maduro government continues or grows, the U.S. has a range of options in response. It could choose to largely ignore or dismiss the deliveries as an unwelcome but not particularly substantial exchange that provides only a small volume of the energy resources Caracas needs, and in terms of revenue delivers only little of the economic relief Tehran seeks against the impact of U.S. sanctions. The U.S. additionally could threaten or impose sanctions against sailors and maritime businesses as a means of dissuading further such transactions, or issue a seizure warrant for the vessels. And it could, as a last recourse, physically impede the ships at sea. Tehran has warned of an “immediate and firm response” if that happens, possibly by reciprocating against commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. Addressing the Roots of Crisis: The U.S. gamble on regime change in Venezuela has not resulted in Maduro’s overthrow. But the fuel shortages that invited Iranian assistance are emblematic of a wider collapse in public services, and – particularly in the context of COVID-19 – underscore the need for a truce to the country’s political conflict. A deal between the government in Caracas and the opposition could facilitate the delivery of aid and supplies, ensuring that a humanitarian vacuum is not left for Tehran to exploit.