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Flashpoint / Global

Venezuela

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
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  • 30 July 2020
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  • 28 July 2020
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  • 15 July 2020
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  • 15 July 2020
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  • 10 July 2020
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  • 26 June 2020
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  • 22 June 2020
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  • 15 June 2020
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  • 13 June 2020
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  • 10 June 2020
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  • 8 June 2020
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  • 8 June 2020
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  • 7 June 2020
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  • 2 June 2020
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  • 1 June 2020
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  • 31 May 2020
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  • 30 May 2020
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  • 29 May 2020
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  • 29 May 2020
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  • 28 May 2020
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  • 27 May 2020
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  • 27 May 2020
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  • 8 May 2020
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  • 29 April 2020
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  • 13 April 2020
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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.