Should the US take Tehran’s Tankers?

Robert Brooks Contributor
Should the US take Tehran’s Tankers?
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Cover: Photo by Chris Pagan on Unsplash

Should the US take Tehran’s Tankers? As the United States prepares for what is hopefully a relaxing, reflective weekend dedicated to honoring our nation’s heroes, a subset of our current service members will be on high alert—ready to go at a moment’s notice. You see, currently there are tankers full of gasoline making their way across the Atlantic, highlighting an unlikely partnership between Iran and Venezuela that would only make sense in the already bizarre year of 2020. As a quick review, oil tankers left Iran’s Bandar Abbas port in March, bound for Venezuela. They made their way through the Suez Canal last week and could reach the Caribbean by the weekend. If completed, the transaction would violate U.S. sanctions levied against both nations. Should the Trump administration intercept the Iranian cargo ships on their way to South America? That’s a question being debated behind closed doors right now and something we’ll be watching over the weekend. Here are the arguments from both sides:

One one hand, some believe that taking direct action against Iran could spark a chain reaction of negative events. Iran’s Nour news agency has already threatened retaliatory action against the U.S. for any potential interventions, stating that, “if the United States, just like pirates, intends to create insecurity on international waterways, it would be taking a dangerous risk, and that will certainly not go without repercussion.” Echoing those comments, Venezuela’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, has emphasized that these tankers are only providing humanitarian aid to the poverty-stricken people of his country. Moreover, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncado, also warned that any actions taken to stop the tankers’ transit would be illegal. In a U.N. Security Council meeting, he explained, “Forbidding these boats from reaching their destination would thus constitute a crime against humanity.”

On the other hand, inaction could also prove to be disastrous. Maybe not in the short term, but at some point down the line. Here’s why: Venezuela has reportedly transferred hundreds of millions of dollars in gold to Tehran for the oil shipments. This fiscal infusion to the cash strapped state of Iran could help finance terrorism overseas and lead to greater instability for U.S. foreign relations in the Middle East. And since it’s Memorial Day, it’s crucial to factor in the safety of the 80,000 military personnel in the region as well. Iran has a well documented track-record of financing proxy armies to carry out attacks against the US in the Middle East. They can’t fund their operations if their black market oil transactions and tankers are stopped from reaching their final destination. Also, the Iranians say they’re transporting oil to Venezuela, but it’s hard to be sure that other items aren’t also included in the shipment.

Flag This: Currently, U.S. Navy vessels and other combat ships are patrolling the Caribbean. Iran appears to be gambling that Trump will not make any “risky” moves during an election year. That calculation was wrong on January 3, 2020, however, when the president authorized the strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, leader of the foreign wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Given that the Soleimani strike did occur, it’s tough to tell if Trump will make an additional move that could add additional fuel to the fire. Zooming out, what’s truly shocking is that Venezuela is importing oil. Venezuela has more proven reserves of oil than any other country in the world. Just stop and think about that. The South American country has nearly 20% of the world’s oil reserves, yet because of government mismanagement, Nicolas Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, simply can’t pick and package the commodity. In fact, due to antiquated refineries and extraction tools, production has cratered and now they’re forced to import oil from a friendly foe. Regardless of what happens, we’ll be thinking of the service members who may be tasked to step into a sticky situation this weekend, along with those who came before them.