Steve June 1, 2020
washington’s-double-failure-against-iran-and-venezuela

Under President Tweety McTreason America has become the angry giant. Washington
issues its orders to the rest of the world almost daily. But the U.S. directives
are routinely ignored. Leading to more and tougher demands. And even greater
resistance.

The problem is not just with America’s adversaries, such as North Korea and
increasingly China. The administration also attempts to dictate to allies, most
notably the Europeans. However, the response is increasingly defiance precisely
when Washington most needs to work with friendly states to achieve its purported
ends. For instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has demanded that European
governments follow the US out of the Iran nuclear accord, prompting them to
effectively choose Iran over America.

The administration’s latest frustrated rants against a recalcitrant world involved
Tehran’s tanker flotilla to Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro’s government has reinforced
the socialist mismanagement of his nation’s oil resources begun by the late
Hugo Chavez. Brutal American economic sanctions have completed the industry’s
destruction. So a regime sitting atop abundant oil reserves cannot refine sufficient
gasoline for its own population.

Iran has a different problem. Washington’s use of secondary and financial sanctions
against the rest of the world has left the Islamic Republic with abundant oil
and refined product to sell. So five tankers full of gasoline headed to Venezuela.
Fueling the deal, so to speak, was thought to be a portion of Venezuela’s gold
reserves. Valued at $45 million, the gasoline shipped will only last a few weeks,
depending on how and to whom they are released. Apparently, Tehran also is providing
equipment to help the Maduro government repair its refineries and other equipment.

The transfer enraged the administration, with its wishes simultaneously flouted
in two capitals. The National Security Adviser tweeted that “The importation
of Iranian gasoline is an act of desperation by the corrupt & illegitimate
Maduro regime.” David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern
Affairs, proclaimed that the administration was “not pleased.”

An anonymous American official told
the Washington Post
that the US “would not abide” Iranian
support for Caracas: “The president has made clear the United States will
not tolerate continued meddling by supporters of an illegitimate regime.”
Adm. Craig Faller, head of the US Southern Command, complained: “You have
to ask yourself what interest Iran has in Venezuela. It is to gain a positional
advantage in our neighborhood as a way to counter US interests.”

Indeed, both former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security
Council John Bolton referenced the Monroe Doctrine, a dictate dating back two
centuries which orders foreign powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere.
Two years ago Tillerson opined that the principle was “as much alive today
as the day when it was written.” Last year Bolton proclaimed: “In
this administration, we’re not afraid to use the phrase ‘Monroe Doctrine’.”
And Venezuela “is a country in our hemisphere.”

Of course, with equal reason Tehran could query why America is “meddling”
in the former’s neighborhood. What reason, other than to “counter”
Iranian interests, is Washington attempting to force the Islamic Republic to
end its assistance to the Syrian government which formally requested that aid?
And why shouldn’t Tehran declare the Khomeini Doctrine to keep America and other
foreign nations out of the Middle East?

Iran and Venezuela served their joint revenge dish cold. As Maduro put it,
with evident satisfaction: “We are two rebel revolutionary peoples that
are never going to kneel before North American imperialism.”

There was speculation that the US might seek to seize the Iranian tankers,
using ships already deployed to interdict drug smuggling from Venezuelan territory.
However, Washington’s sanctions have no international warrant. It appears that
even the Trump administration isn’t willing to openly commit piracy on the high
seas.

Moreover, both Venezuela and Iran threatened to retaliate if the US did so.
Caracas has little capability to stop America from acting; the attempt likely
would leave its ships disabled or sunk by the US navy. However, Iran has demonstrated
its ability to disrupt oil traffic in the Persian Gulf. President Hassan Rouhani
declared: “If Americans create problems for our oil tankers in the Caribbean
waters or anywhere in the world, we will reciprocally create problems for them.”
With tensions between Tehran and Washington waning as the administration shifts
its attention to China, even administration Iranophobes appear to have little
stomach for another Mideast crisis.

Another unnamed US official claimed that Washington didn’t want to trigger
a crisis over a few tankers but hoped to prevent regular trade. The administration
did threaten to sanction two Greek-owned tankers thought to be carrying additional
Iranian shipments to Venezuela, which halted in response. And the US has been
lobbying countries, most notably Trinidad and Tobago, to do what it won’t do,
seize Iranian ships. Russ Dallen of Caracas Capital Markets contended: “It
was obvious that the Trump administration wasn’t going to let this situation
continue. There is no way that the US is going to allow a few gallons of gas
to become a pipeline.”

However, Trinidad and Tobago merely requested that Iran avoid the former’s
sea lanes. And no one else agreed to do the Trump administration’s dirty work
by committing an act of war.

Administration officials also suggested that they would increase US sanctions
on Iran and Venezuela, but that policy so far has proved to be a dead end. President
Trump has imposed or increased economic penalties on Cuba, North Korea, Russia,
and Germany, as well as Iran and Venezuela. None of these governments has submitted
to Washington. Indeed, after the president suggested that he could easily bring
Tehran to heel it contemptuously rejected Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s surrender
terms. The president was left to nearly beg the Islamic Republic to negotiate,
without success.

Anyway, the US has no obvious means to stop an oil-for-gold transaction, since
America’s most effective sanctions utilize its domination of the international
financial system. And what transactions are left to penalize? Ben Cahill of
the Center for Strategic and International Studies observed: “It’s almost
become like a whack-a-mole situation where every time an illicit transaction
comes up involving Venezuela, the US government tries to put sanctions on it.
But there are diminishing returns. We’re running out of entities to sanction.”

Of course, the world will benefit when the oppressive regimes in both Caracas
and Tehran pass away. Most important, they abuse their own people. However,
Washington has done much to stoke hostility in both capitals, having promoted
coups, threatened military action, and promoted regime change. US policy effectively
encouraged the two pariah regimes to cooperate.

This is not the first or most serious example of the “enemy of my enemy”
phenomenon at work-which also includes Cuba, the recipient of some presumed
free or deeply discounted oil from Venezuela. Washington’s confrontational policy
toward both Russia and China has driven them together, making a far more serious
combination. Yet Moscow traditionally has viewed itself as part of the West
and increasingly is the junior partner in its cooperation with Beijing.

An even more important consequence of American hubris is Europe’s developing
workaround to US sanctions on Iran. On financial issues, at least, the Trump
administration is encouraging virtually the entire world to organize against
America. US policymakers appear oblivious to the building resentment over their
demand that the rest of the world kowtow else face financial ruin. If the dollar
loses its primacy, it is more likely to be due to political misjudgment than
fiscal mismanagement, even though the latter is equally serious.

Washington’s sanctions policies against Iran and Venezuela have achieved little
other than to impoverish the peoples of both nations. The governing elites appear
to be getting along just fine. Similar has been the impact in Cuba, under an
American economic embargo for six decades. And North Korea and Russia,
as well. Now even beleaguered Iran is challenging the US in America’s own
neighborhood
, despite the sacred Monroe Doctrine. Observed economist Orlando
Ochoa: “Iran is taking the bold move to show the world that they also have
influence in an area the US considers its backyard.”

It is time for Washington to de-escalate these disputes and look for political
accommodations. Economic sanctions can be a useful tool but are best employed
as part of a larger diplomatic campaign with international backing. As both
Iran and Venezuela have dramatically demonstrated, unilateral sanctions rarely
enable America to dictate to even the poorest state. Yet again the Trump administration
has highlighted its arrogant impotence, embarrassing itself and America.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant
to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of
Foreign Follies: America’s New
Global Empire.

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