In terms of putting on a spectacle, the current crop of leaders in Iran and Venezuela are a pale imitation of the situation a decade ago, when the double act of the late Hugo Chávez—then Venezuela’s undisputed comandante—and the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—then at his Holocaust-denying, Israel-eliminating peak—declared open season on American interests and values around the world.
But the comparative dullness of their successors—in Venezuela, the Cuban-trained apparatchik Nicolás Maduro, and in Iran, the pompous cleric Hassan Rouhani—should not obscure the fact that the alliance between these two rogue authoritarian states remains intact.
In a bid to revive the spirit of defiance that characterized the Chávez-Ahmadinejad approach, the arrival this week of Iranian tankers carrying oil into Venezuelan ports was carefully stage-managed by the two regimes. A few days before the arrival last Monday of the first oil tanker, named the Fortune, Maduro went on state television warning darkly that the United States was poised to attack the Iranian ships and pledging that force would be met with force. As he spoke, images in the background showed Venezuelan armed forces on missile-firing exercises.
Of course, no one seriously expected the Americans to attack the ships, so the belligerent rhetoric from Maduro was conveniently risk-free. When the Fortune docked in the port of El Palito, followed by two more tankers later in the week, Caracas and Tehran duly declared victory. Venezuela’s oil minister was photographed in an embrace with the beaming captain of the tanker, while state-run media outlets crowed that the United States had been “humiliated” by what the Iranian daily Javan memorably called “Iranian might under the very nose of America.”
As has been the case with the victory parades of tyrannical regimes throughout history, the Venezuela-Iran demonstration of solidarity was all show and no substance. The benefit of the Iranian oil deliveries to ordinary Venezuelans—already weighed down by a collapsed economy, a political crisis, chronic food shortages and now the coronavirus pandemic—is negligible. “The Iranian tankers hold what analysts estimate to be enough gasoline to supply Venezuela for two to three weeks,” the Venezuela Daily newsletter noted on May 26. “Drivers must wait for days in lines that snake through neighborhoods to fill up with government-subsidized gasoline that costs less than a penny for a tank. Wealthier drivers with U.S. dollars turn to the black market, where gas costs up to US$12 a gallon. That is a small fortune in Venezuela, where the monthly minimum wage equals less than US$5.”
In other words, whatever rare and temporary benefits might be derived from Iran’s largesse, these will disappear in less than a month. What will remain is the uncompromising stance of both regimes, buoyed by their own propaganda.
The shared official line is that the successful delivery of the Iranian oil demonstrates that America is scared and in retreat. In an interview with a hardline Iranian newspaper, the former Iranian Ambassador to Venezuela, Ahmad Sobhani, declared that the U.S. decision not to intervene against the tankers was a sign of Iran’s formidable “deterrent power.” Explained Sobhani, “[I]t gave the United States an understanding about the need to respect its obligations with regard to international free trade and navigation,” with the result that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration now grasped that “initiating a conflict with Tehran will not be in its best interest.”
As far as the United States is concerned, it is engaged in what the State Department calls a “maximum pressure campaign” against the mullahs in Tehran. While it would certainly welcome a change of regime in Iran, that’s not actually the goal of the campaign. As U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it on May 20, its purpose is “to get Iran to behave like a normal nation.”
The main tool of the American effort has been the targeted, choke-hold sanctions placed on Iranian individuals and entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). A further 12 Iranian “individuals and entities” were sanctioned by the United States last week, among them the current interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli. When anti-regime protests erupted in Iran in November 2019, Fazli’s “evil commands killed Iranian citizens,” asserted Pompeo. “We’re proud to mete out what justice we can on behalf of the slain and silenced inside of Iran.”
As we approach the fifth anniversary of the ill-fated nuclear deal between the Obama administration and the Iranian regime, it is heartening to contrast America’s tone on Iran back then with the way it presently sounds. But there is the difficult question of whether America’s caution over the use of force will encourage Iran and Venezuela to increase the degree of provocation, perhaps by dispatching an oil flotilla twice the size of this one. And if oil gets through, then why not weapons or surveillance technology in the future?
Much as Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used to do, the Iran-Venezuela axis is again poking America in the eye. True, both regimes are on shakier foundations than they were a decade ago, but they continue to retain power—and to believe that sanctions will not, by themselves, lead to their downfall.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.
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