Iran and Venezuela's strategic challenge to sanctions

Iran and Venezuela's strategic challenge to sanctions
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In any other year, the recent claim by Colombian President Ivan Duque that Venezuela is actively looking to acquire medium- to long-range missiles from Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, would make major headlines in the United States. 

But 2020 is no ordinary year. Aside from the pandemic, this is an election year and most Americans are preoccupied with politics. Many are concerned about ongoing social uprisings. America’s enemies abroad, namely Iran and Venezuela, are paying attention to the internal dynamics in the U.S. and looking to capitalize on an opportunity. 

That moment could come on Oct. 18, when the 13-year-old arms embargo on Iran is set to expire. The Trump administration anticipated this moment, but was denied an extension of the embargo at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC); it now has requested that the council invoke the “snapback” provision of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. UNSC Resolution 2231, a separate, independent document from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) political agreement, would not only extend the arms embargo but also reinstate all previous sanctions on the Islamic Republic. 


While the legal battle ensues at the UNSC, Iran is crafting a strategic challenge to the threat of sanctions by signaling a potential arms transfer to the Western Hemisphere’s most brutal regime — that of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. 

Maduro’s government is responsible for Latin America’s worst humanitarian crisis in modern history. At least 5.2 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014, making it the second-highest refugee outflow. Many are fleeing repression, highlighted in recent United Nations Human Rights reports citing more than 8,000 extra-judicial killings since 2018. But many more are fleeing the harsh economic conditions; Venezuelans are suffering mass shortages of food, medicine and even fuel, despite sitting on some of the world’s largest oil reserves. 

Iran has used the fuel crisis in Venezuela as an opportunity to test its sanctions resistance strategy. In an act of defiance to U.S. sanctions, Iran has sent flights to Venezuela by Mahan Air,  as well as vessels by IRISL and several technicians from its National Petrochemical Company (NPC). All are Iranian state-owned or -controlled entities sanctioned by the U.S. for dual-use activity with Iran’s clerical army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). 

The IRGC’s presence in Venezuela is not new. They have been building a covert procurement and proliferation network in Venezuela for at least 15 years through various opaque military projects with Venezuela’s defense industry, CAVIM. Yet, 2020 is the year Iran’s military presence emerged from the shadows in an effort to legitimize its footprint in Venezuela. By sending fuel, food, technicians, and even opening the first Iranian supermarket in the capital city of Caracas, Iran has made visible a once covert network managed by the IRGC’s Quds Force. 

Iran says this is simply support for a partner in need. In reality, this is a trial balloon for what’s to come if the UN arms embargo is lifted. 

Iran tested America’s response and the international community’s reaction to clear sanctions violations this past summer with fuel shipments to Venezuela. The Maduro regime, itself increasingly isolated and sanctioned by the international community, received this fuel with a tremendous amount of fanfare and propaganda. Yet, this came at a cost for Tehran, because the U.S. was able to seize the contents of four other Liberian-flagged tankers from Iran that tried to evade detection while en route to Venezuela. It was the largest U.S. seizure of Iranian fuel to date, per the Department of Justice

But Iran has found a recipe to exploit a chink in the armor of U.S. or international sanctions — an amplified victimization narrative with just a dose of military provocation. 

For most of 2020, Iran and Venezuela have been building a joint victimization narrative suggesting they suffer from “unfair sanctions” and will resist together against the U.S. “max pressure.” Yet, they both managed to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to crack down on internal opposition and repress citizens, while the two countries engage in strategic talks instead of tending to their peoples’ needs. 

This victimization narrative is intended to deceive the international community, delegitimize the use of sanctions, and paint the United States as the aggressor. 

If successful, come late October, Iran likely will up the ante by trying to send medium- to long-range missiles to the Maduro regime to provoke a sort of sanctions standoff between the United States and the United Nations — a move that Maduro hinted at when he said buying Iranian missiles is “a good idea.” The calculus is to try to back President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE and the United States into a corner.  


If the U.S. were to use military force to intercept an Iranian arms shipment to Venezuela, effectively enforcing sanctions, this could be perceived by the international community as an act of war. If the Trump administration were to do nothing, and Iranian missiles arrived at a location only 1,600 miles away from Florida, it could cost the president votes in a key swing state in November. 

Regardless, Iran and Venezuela appear to have decided to try to force Trump’s hand in this seemingly lose-lose battle, unless the international community understands that Iran’s defiance of sanctions is not just against the United States — it’s against international peace and security. 

Joseph Humire is executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society and co-editor of “Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America” (Lexington Books, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @jmhumire.