Two months ago, five Iranian oil tankers by the names of Petunia, Forest, Faxon, Clavel and Fortune left Iran for the Caribbean Sea. The last of them entered Venezuelan waters on the 1st of June, 2020. These oil tankers were carrying 1,520,000 barrels of gasoline and diesel fuel as well as a shipment of catalyst. There was also a team of Iranian engineers and specialists from the oil industry on board heading for Caracas. This event can forge a strategic partnership between Tehran and Caracas if it is continued and expanded to other areas. It also offers a glimpse into the type of relations that can be established between countries which are under U.S. sanctions with the central aim of circumventing sanctions. Why is this joint initiative by Iran and Venezuela important? What message does it send to both the U.S. and to countries under U.S. sanctions? Can this joint initiative be considered the beginning of a new era in the international system, in which unilateral sanctions lose their effectiveness and validity as a tool in U.S. foreign policy? These are questions this Op-Ed will answer.
Iran and Venezuela: Two Partners Against Unilateral U.S. Sanctions
Before we embark on a discussion and review of the importance of dispatching Iranian oil tankers to Venezuela, it is necessary to assess the condition of these two countries in the face of U.S. sanctions. Despite several years of negotiations with the P5+1, which included the U.S., and signing an agreement known as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” Washington went back on its commitments and restored oppressive sanctions on Iran after Donald Trump came to power. Trump breached Resolution 2231 of the U.N. Security Council and unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA. The U.S. reimposed the previously-lifted sanctions on Iran – including financial and banking sanctions, sanctions on the oil and petrochemical industry, and sanctions on medicine. It also designated Iranian officials and its Armed Forces, including the IRGC, as terrorists and blacklisted them. Finally, tensions in the Persian Gulf came to a head after the assassination of General Soleimani, who had travelled to Iraq at the invitation of that country’s Prime Minister. In Venezuela, solely because President Maduro is not Washington’s favored option, the White House has imposed sanctions on Caracas. During Trump’s time in office, the U.S. has also implemented a failed coup against the Venezuelan government and made failed attempts to assassinate Venezuelan officials. From this perspective, Iran and Venezuela share the same experience as they are both a target of U.S. sanctions as well as its interfering, tension-causing measures.
Why is sending Iranian oil tankers to Venezuela significant?
Iranian oil tankers carrying gasoline and other oil products needed by the people of Venezuela sailed thousands of kilometers from the Persian Gulf to the Caribbean Sea and docked at Venezuela’s ports. The news has taken over the headlines in many news networks over the past few days, and it is important for several reasons, which will be touched upon below.
- Commercial transactions between Iran and Venezuela were based on a simple assumption, but they led to a great achievement. The simple assumption was that both countries have goods and services that the other needs. By sharing these goods and services, the two countries can diminish the burden of oppressive sanctions against their people. But having acted on this simple assumption, they achieved a major goal. That goal is the official defeat and failure of unilateral sanctions, which are used as a tool in U.S. foreign policy. One side of this cooperation is Iran, which is determined to prove that thanks to the sanctions and through resistance, it has achieved goals which cannot be achieved through negotiations. Iran is keen to prove that it remains true to the commitments and agreements it has made with other countries, regardless of whether they are neighbors such as Iraq and Syria, or it is Venezuela. Iran has the third biggest oil tanker fleet in the world, and Venezuela is an important oil producing member of OPEC. The success of the two countries in exchanging goods and services needed by each other can be expanded to all areas, and it can give rise to a type of strategic partnership forged around the axis of confronting the U.S. and its sanctions.
- Iran and Venezuela implemented a successful pattern for de-dollarization in bilateral commercial and financial transactions. This has alarmed Washington about the decline of the strength of the dollar in global commercial and financial transactions. And, it is a light for all countries that are faced with restrictions such as U.S. tariffs on imports. Tehran and Caracas have shown to these countries that they have countless tools at their disposal to counter Trump’s America and the tariff war waged by the White House. They only need to focus on their shared capacities.
- Iran-Venezuela cooperation started when the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran gasoline imports in 2017. Their purpose was to disturb the balance of supply and demand in Iran, disrupt the people’s life and the economy, and set the stage for strikes and revolts. However, Iran’s export of gasoline to Venezuela nullified this idea. Iran proved in action that not only has it achieved self-sufficiency in the production of domestically consumed gasoline, but it has also developed into being an exporter of gasoline.
- The initiative sent an important message from Tehran to the White House. The message is that Iran cannot be sanctioned. This is at a time when the U.S. is seeking to tighten its blockade of Iran by issuing waivers on a monthly basis for Iraq to purchase natural gas from Iran. Under such conditions, the initiative by Iran to dispatch oil tankers to the Caribbean Sea, the purported U.S. backyard, carries the implicit message that not only does the Islamic Republic have no regard for sanctions, but it also seeks trade partners thousands of kilometers away.
- Another important point is that Iran has carried out these measures by relying on three principles: public support, political independence and preemptive military power. In fact, Iran changed the balance of power in its confrontation with the English oil tanker “Grace” in the Persian Gulf by showing its preparedness to counter any retaliatory measures by relying on its missile and drone capabilities. Since two years ago and from the start of Trump’s confrontation with Tehran, Iran has been openly declaring that it would close the Strait of Hormuz to all counties if it needs to do so. But today, Iran has gone beyond this threat and has achieved such a power that it can answer a threat with a threat in any part of the world. Iran’s boldness and confidence in sending its oil tankers to the Caribbean Sea flying its own flag and without switching off its trackers is first and foremost the result of Trump’s mistake in disgracefully assassinating the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. It is also the direct result of America’s breach of the U.N. Security Council resolution and its withdrawal from the JCPOA. The same is true of Venezuela as well. The fact that Venezuelan military warships and fighter jets escorted the Iranian oil tankers in the Caribbean Sea shows that Caracas is prepared to confront any ill-conceived moves and measures by America.
- The final point is that the dispatch of Iranian oil tankers to the Caribbean Sea under sanctions has strengthened the prospect that independent countries will come together and form organizations of their own in the near future. Today, more than 23 countries are the direct target of U.S. sanctions. Several other countries, including certain European countries, are also faced with restrictions imposed by the U.S. at the current time. With this initiative, Iran and Venezuela can take initial steps toward establishing an organization for cooperation between independent countries. Once established, such an organization would bring together an association of independent countries for the first time, one that will define a mutually-agreed upon mechanism for circumventing unlawful and oppressive sanctions by the U.S. or any other Arrogant Power where these independent countries share their current and potential capacities.
Since its establishment more than 40 years ago, the Islamic Republic of Iran has experienced various forms of interaction and confrontation with America. Despite being aware of the fact that the U.S. would not honor its commitments, Iran decided to enter into negotiations with Washington as part of the P5+1 talks. The futility of these negotiations and commitments were eventually proven. But today, Iran is determined to prove that there are other ways to achieve its goals, ways other than making concessions to America. This strategy is active resistance. Active resistance does not mean isolation, and it is not a defensive approach. On the contrary, it is based on using all capacities for cooperation with friendly countries while being prepared to accept the cost of confronting any threat. Today, Tehran and Caracas have demonstrated a successful example of this.