From Consortium News
May 22, 2020
MEMORANDUM FOR: The President
FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)
SUBJECT: Avoiding Hostilities Over Iranian Fuel Shipment to Venezuela
Recent U.S. rhetoric and actions against Venezuela most immediately regarding Iran's shipping of gasoline desperately needed during the pandemic puts the U.S. at risk of an outbreak of dangerous and almost certainly counterproductive hostilities, not only in the Caribbean, but also in waters closer to Iran. As five Iranian tankers approach Venezuela, with the first due to arrive Sunday, hardliners in both Washington and Iran would relish a chance to give a bloody nose to the other side, but it may not be that simple.
While the U.S. can invoke the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America, geography trumps doctrine. True, the U.S. holds the upper hand in the Caribbean. It does not have tactical advantage in the Persian Gulf despite the formidable amount of U.S. weaponry already deployed in the area. We believe there is a good chance Iran will pick the Gulf as the place to retaliate for any quarantine or more warlike actions off Venezuela.
As former intelligence officers and other national security practitioners with many decades of experience, we understand the frustration your Administration feels as its "maximum pressure" campaign to remove Venezuelan President Nicola's Maduro enters its 17th month without much progress. Our purpose is not to defend Maduro, whose economic performance has alienated many and compounded Venezuela's problems. Rather, we wish to ensure that you are aware of the possible pitfalls of the general threatening to use "maximum pressure" and "all means necessary" to effect "regime change" in Venezuela. In our view, any U.S. attempt to interdict access of the Iranian ships to Venezuela will be widely seen as an act of war. It could conceivably lead to unprecedented retaliation in places as far away as the Persian Gulf -- events that the U.S. will not be able to fully control.
Inside Venezuela, U.S. sanctions and other policies are inflicting significant suffering, and the threat to continue "maximum pressure" even during the pandemic has had a significant psychological impact. It has pushed many Venezuelans eager for change to close ranks with the government and blame mostly the U.S. for their troubles. Nationalism and fear of foreign intervention are strong drivers in countries like Venezuela. The Venezuelan economy was already a shambles due to government mismanagement and corruption. But blocking the country's ability to sell oil, to access accounts and reserves overseas, and to engage in normal trade have had a devastating impact on the Venezuelan people -- the more so as the corona virus takes its toll there.
National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, whom some 50 other governments besides the U.S. have supported in his claim to the National Presidency, has been badly discredited.
* His continued calls for ever-tightening economic sanctions -- at a time that his countrymen lack food, water, and most basic supplies -- is destroying his credibility as a man eager to "save his people." His direct involvement in several failed coup efforts, most disastrously on 30 April 2019, and his $213 million contract with the obviously inept expeditionary force wrapped up on Venezuelan beaches on 3 May, showed deeply flawed judgment and ineffective leadership. He has also been hurt by his failure to resist pressure from comrades in the extreme opposition to walk away from internal or international negotiations every time they show signs of progress.
* Polling in Venezuela is generally not reliable enough to give high confidence at any particular moment in time, but all polls and all observers in the country point to a steep decline in Guaidó's support, and many members of the opposition Guaidó claims to lead have abandoned him. Because he ignored the moderate opposition, which is fragmented but has in many cases deep historical roots, they are unwilling to lend him a hand. We understand that many of the countries that joined the United States in recognizing Guaidó now regret doing so.
Locked out of most normal trade by the U.S. sanctions, President Maduro has had to reach out to non-traditional partners to get bare necessities. We do not know the terms of the gasoline deal he struck with Iran, but speculation that he paid in bullion, which the U.S. has called "blood gold," is not substantiated. The Venezuelan government's extreme frustration at the United Kingdom's refusal to release Venezuelan gold in London is one indicator that Caracas has little of the precious metal to throw around.
* Lines for gasoline in Venezuela have been long - sometimes it takes two days to fill a tank -- but traffic has dropped precipitously during the coronavirus pandemic. Oil industry observers estimate that the $45.5 million in refined products carried by the five Iranian tankers would satisfy Venezuela's needs for only a limited time. We have seen no information indicating whether future shipments are planned. (Venezuela produces about 550,000 barrels of oil a day but has only negligible capacity to refine finished product.)
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