National Security

U.S., Iran Approach Showdown Over Oil Tankers Headed for Venezuela

Trump admin weighs war against enforcing ‘max pressure’ on Iran, Venezuela

Iranian tanker near Gibraltar, July 6, 2019 / Getty Images

The United States "will not tolerate continued meddling" by Iran in Venezuelan affairs, a senior Trump administration official told the Washington Free Beacon, bringing nearer the possibility of a naval confrontation between the United States and Tehran over its shipment of oil to the heavily sanctioned Maduro regime.

Five Iranian oil tankers are currently making their way to Venezuela, where they intend to bust an economic blockade established by the Trump administration on President Nicolas Maduro, whose regime has teetered on the brink of collapse since the United States deemed him the country's illegitimate leader and placed a bevy of sanctions on the regime. The tankers included in Iran's fleet are already subject to U.S. sanctions, as is the oil transported on the ships.

The situation puts the administration in a tight spot: Either it enforces its "maximum pressure" campaign on both nations or avoids sparking a wider military conflict in American waters. President Trump has been clear about his intent to enforce the Monroe Doctrine—a policy of not permitting foreign nations to intervene in the Americas—but he has not yet been confronted with a high-stakes challenge from hostile regimes so close to U.S. soil.

"The president has made clear the United States will not tolerate continued meddling by supporters of an illegitimate regime that oppresses its people, denies basic human rights, and engages in violence and repression," a senior administration official told the Free Beacon, speaking only on background about the developing conflict.

Iranian military leaders said their oil tankers would reach the Caribbean in the coming days. In response, the U.S. Navy has already deployed several ships to the area.

Both Iran and Venezuela have threatened violence if the United States intercedes in the shipment. And while the Trump administration would not telegraph any actions it may be planning, U.S. officials made clear the United States does not intend to let Iran expand its malign influence into Latin America.

Iran has emerged as one of Maduro's chief allies as U.S. economic sanctions cripple both regimes. The Iranian tankers are carrying much-needed fuel for Venezuela, which has experienced severe shortfalls due to American sanctions.

Iranian military leaders have said that they will not shy away from a military conflict with America if it seeks to interfere in the oil shipment.

"We will not tolerate any harassment," Brigadier General Amir Hatami, Iran's defense minister, said Thursday. "The Americans and others know that we will certainly not hesitate to react to this issue, and if the harassment intensifies and continues, it will certainly face a decisive response."

The United States now faces a tipping point in its standoff with both regimes as it deals for the first time with the threat of a joint Iranian-Venezuelan flotilla, which includes military vessels.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told the Free Beacon the Iranian-Venezuelan partnership highlights the corruption rampant in both regimes.

"Venezuela used to produce a million barrels a day of gasoline, but now has to import it week by week from Iran," Ortagus said. "This is a sad reminder of Maduro's hopeless mismanagement. In return for Iran's assistance, Maduro's criminal organization reportedly looted nine tons of gold bars and sent them to Tehran. Venezuelans need free and fair presidential elections leading to democracy and economic recovery, not Maduro's expensive deals with another pariah state."

The senior administration official quoted above emphasized the severity of Iran carrying out operations close to American borders.

"Iran, Cuba, Russia, and the People's Republic of China are engaged in malign activities and meddling around the world," the senior administration official said. "The United States denounces their actions everywhere but especially in the Western Hemisphere, and we will not abide by their support of the illegitimate and tyrannical regime of Nicolas Maduro."

Iran maintains that the tankers are legally sanctioned and meant to provide aid to the Venezuelan people as they experience a significant fuel shortage.

"We hope that America would not commit any stupid act, otherwise, it will receive our strong response," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said this week.

Proponents of the administration's tough stance on Iran said the president must act decisively to deter Iran from increasing its footprint in Latin America.

"Iran's decision to send a five-strong fleet of sanctioned tankers carrying sanctioned petroleum to the Maduro regime is a brazen attempt to push the limits of U.S. patience," said Daniel Roth, research director at United Against Nuclear Iran, a watchdog group with close ties to the administration. "With a potential reactivation of Tehran's network of South American terror sleeper cells, now is the time to build a strong and unified coalition in the Americas against the deadly Iranian regime."