Lawmakers wary of potential oil talks with Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Iran

The Biden administration’s willingness to engage with the likes of Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Iran to potentially fill voids of foreign oil imports is rattling some lawmakers who say the White House should not be cutting off foreign relations with one dictator in exchange for another to stabilize global energy markets.

Officials have said no decisions have been made about importing oil from Venezuela or Saudi Arabia, but the conversations underscore the difficult position the White House is in as it seeks to balance the desire to punish Russia amid concerns at home about soaring gas prices and the potential of further destabilizing worldwide energy markets.

Tennessee Rep. Mark Green, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee, on Monday called for the ban on Russian oil to extend to Iranian and Venezuelan supplies.

“The United States should not be directly or indirectly funding Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by purchasing their oil and gas,” Green said. 

“At the same time, it would be outrageous to even consider buying oil from Iran or Venezuela. It’s preposterous that the Biden administration is even considering reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal,” he said. “It’s past time for us to take advantage of America’s abundant natural resources and become energy independent—and it’s time to cut off tyranny and totalitarianism at the knees around the globe.”

The White House has faced questions in recent days about whether, in exchange for banning energy imports from the Kremlin, it would be willing to deal with other governments that have been found to have committed crimes against humanity and have abysmal track records on human rights abuses.

“I think it’s important to take each of those engagements separately because there are a range of issues that are important in each of those relationships,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, the day before President Biden announced he would ban Russian oil imports as further punishment for Russia invading Ukraine.

Psaki said two administration officials — Brett McGurk, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Amos Hochstein, a State Department special envoy for energy affairs — traveled to Saudi Arabia last month to discuss a range of issues, including the war in Yemen and energy matters.

But relations with Saudi Arabia are a complicated matter given the kingdom’s human rights abuses, particularly the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden vowed last year to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for Khashoggi’s murder after U.S. officials determined Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing.

Axios reported this week there were discussions about Biden visiting Saudi Arabia later this year, but Psaki said there are “no current plans” for the president to travel to the kingdom.

Psaki also acknowledged oil was a part of discussions among the U.S., allies and Iran as they seek to finalize a deal that would prevent Iran from being able to acquire a nuclear weapon. Should the sides reach a deal, sanctions could be lifted that would allow Iranian oil to flow into global markets, providing another source of supply to replace Russian energy.

Meanwhile, Biden administration officials on Saturday visited Caracas, in a sign that the United States is at least willing to consider supplanting Russian energy purchases with those from other previously sanctioned countries.

The dialogue with officials from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government could also be part of a diplomatic offensive to cut Russia off from its largest ally in the Western Hemisphere.

Still, the move rattled some of Biden’s allies in Congress, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

“If the reports are true that the Biden administration is brokering the purchase of Venezuelan oil, I fear that it risks perpetuating a humanitarian crisis that has destabilized Latin America and the Caribbean for an entire generation,” Menendez said in a statement Monday.

“Nicolás Maduro is a cancer to our hemisphere and we should not breathe new life into his reign of torture and murder. As such, I would strongly oppose any action that fills the pockets of regime oligarchs with oil profits while Maduro continues to deprive Venezuelans of basic human rights, freedoms, and even food,” added Menendez.

The White House has made clear it has other interests in talking with Venezuela, specifically about the release of imprisoned American citizens.

“There was a discussion that was had by members of the administration over the course of the last several days. Those discussions are also ongoing. And part of our focus is also on the health and welfare of detained U.S. citizens — while a separate process, still that is part of our engagement with them,” Psaki said Monday. “So, at this point in time, I don’t have anything to predict. It’s ongoing.”

A full reinstatement of Maduro as a recognized leader in good standing with the United States would be a shocking turn of events.

Not only is Maduro’s government not officially recognized as Venezuela’s ruling body — the State Department in January refreshed its recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader — but Maduro himself is under indictment in the United States since 2020 as an alleged narco-terrorist.

The Venezuelan overture also quickly spilled over into Florida’s 2022 Senate race, where GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is seeking reelection to a third term.

Rubio on Sunday was quick to criticize the move, saying Biden was seeking to “replace the oil we buy from one murderous dictator with oil from another murderous dictator.”

Rubio also came out forcibly against purchasing Iranian oil, largely on similar grounds.

The leading Democrat in the primary race to challenge Rubio, Florida Rep. Val Demings, said she is “deeply skeptical of the new talks in Venezuela.”

“We have multiple strong actions that we can take right now to bring down costs without enriching corrupt and murderous dictators like Nicolás Maduro,” Demings said in a statement.

Still, the Maduro regime had embarked on a charm offensive even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, recruiting a former Ecuadorian finance minister to woo Wall Street as an ally in a push to decrease or lift sanctions against Venezuela.

The pitch before the invasion was essentially that bondholders would recover their investments if they successfully lobbied Washington to lift sanctions. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has added geopolitical and inflation-busting benefits to the mix.

It’s unclear whether Venezuela would be able to increase oil production quickly enough to supplant Russia’s isolation from the global energy market — Venezuelan oil production dipped from 3 million barrels a day in the 1990s to about a tenth of that following U.S. oil sanctions in 2019.

While production has more than doubled since then, it could still take months or years for Venezuelan crude production to make a dent in domestic U.S. gas prices.

Both Republicans and Democrats are critical of what they call the Biden administration’s knee-jerk reaction to seek increased oil production abroad rather than easing conditions to increase domestic production, which would also take time to make a difference when it comes to prices at the pump.

“I find it disturbing that the Biden administration is negotiating with one tyrannical dictator while sanctioning another one. The U.S. is more than capable of producing its own energy. We need to stop relying on adversaries for energy we can produce here at home,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill.

Tags Bob Menendez Jen Psaki Joe Biden Marco Rubio Mark Green Val Demings Vladimir Putin

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