Biden needs a tougher line on Venezuela to send a message to Iran
Events in recent months have demonstrated once again that Iran’s malevolent activities are not limited to its Middle Eastern neighborhood. Just last month, the Department of Justice charged four Iranians with plotting to kidnap a prominent Iranian-American journalist and transport her to Venezuela before sending her on to Iran for likely imprisonment and torture if not death.
A few weeks earlier, an Iranian ship loaded seven attack boats similar to those that harass Western warships in the Gulf steamed toward Venezuela. The ship made a last-minute turn to the North Atlantic only following pressure on Caracas from Washington and other states not to let the ship dock in a Venezuelan port. Another Iranian ship was headed toward Cuba, reportedly carrying missiles, and likewise was turned away after American pressure on Havana.
Iranian malign interventions in Latin America can be traced at least as far back as the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more. Tehran’s ties with Venezuela blossomed during Hugo Chávez’s rule. The Venezuelan dictator made his first visit to Iran in 2001, and he and Iranian leaders exchanged visits many times until his death in 2013. During that period the two countries concluded hundreds of deals, including on energy production, infrastructure, industrial cooperation and a joint development bank.
At the same time, Iran and Venezuela appeared to coordinate their anti-American policies; in 2007 they announced an “axis of unity” against what they termed “American imperialism,” which long has been a term of Latin American leftists hostile to their northern neighbor.
Relations have only strengthened since Nicolás Maduro succeeded Chávez. Indeed, Iran was one of the few countries that continued to recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s president after the National Assembly invalidated the 2019 presidential election and recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president. In 2020, Iran began shipping petroleum to Venezuela, in defiance of American sanctions on both countries. More generally, bilateral trade between them, once miniscule, continues to grow and now reportedly amounts to several hundred million dollars.
Although it took a tough line against the planned Iranian shipment of missile boats to Venezuela, the Biden administration appears reluctant to ramp up its pressure on both countries while it continues to pursue what increasingly appears to be the chimera of a revived Iran nuclear deal. That reluctance certainly runs counter to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act that President Obama signed nearly a decade ago, in December 2012.
In particular, although it recognizes Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, the Biden administration has not acted upon the request made earlier this year by a bipartisan group of congressmen from Florida — where thousands of Venezuelans now reside — that called upon the administration to appoint a new special representative for Venezuela. That official’s role, as the State Department describes it, is “to advance the U.S. policy goal of helping Venezuelans to return their country to a democratic, prosperous and stable nation.”
In this regard, it is noteworthy that the outgoing envoy, Elliot Abrams, was twin-hatted as special representative for Iran, reflecting the Trump administration’s hard line toward both countries.
It is time the White House named a new envoy to address Maduro’s illegal rule and his ongoing defiance of U.S. sanctions in coordination with the Tehran government. Failing to do so will only give Iran’s mullahs evidence that Washington is not really serious in asserting that it will seek a follow-on to any resumption of the nuclear deal to address Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and beyond. That is most definitely not a perception, much less the reality, that the Biden administration should wish to foster.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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