The Venezuelan Navy is escorting 5 Iranian tankers filled with gasoline that are now nearing the Venezuelan coast, leaving the United States with few options to stop them.
Both Iran and Venezuela are under economic sanctions by the U.S. and the trade in oil is seen as illegal in Washington. The U.S. Navy has ships in the Caribbean that could interdict the Iranian tankers before they make port. Sources in Washington have sought to downplay the military option.
ImageSat International using tracking algorithms post satellite images of the tankers on May 22. It shows the Forest tanker making is way toward Caracas. The ISI assessment notes that if the tankers keep the same sailing speed the Fortune will enter Venezuela’s exclusive economic zone on May 23, Saturday. The Forest and Petunia will arrive soon after. The tankers must first navigate some beautiful Caribbean islands before coming to port in Venezuela. Two other tankers, the Faxon and Clavel may arrive next week.The US has naval ships somewhere in the Caribbean that could interdict the ships but so far it is unclear if there will be any standoff. The US appeared to downplay rumors that there would be a conflagration. Iran has warned the US that any interference will result in retaliation.
There is one angle, however, that could give the U.S. a plausible legal justification for interdicting the tankers. Former U.S. 5th Fleet commander Vice Admiral John Miller suspects that the tankers probably have on-board force protection personnel from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. This would make the ships “fair game,” he said, under the U.S. designation of the IRGC in 2019 as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was enacted vis-à-vis those responsible for the 9/11 attacks against the U.S., has been expanded to broadly apply to any group designated as a foreign terrorist organization and was the stated justification for the January 3 targeted killing of IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani.
While it would make little political sense for Guaido to make such a contentious move, the involvement of one of his aides in a bungled invasion of Venezuela organized by U.S. special forces veterans in early May suggests that facilitating a U.S. effort to block the ships from unloading oil is within the realm of the possible.
For its part, the Trump administration might find a blunt realpolitik rationale attractive. Iran itself last year attacked and seized foreign tankers in international waters in the Gulf. What is sauce for the goose is surely sauce for the gander, might go the reasoning, especially if the action took place in the Caribbean Sea, which traditionally has been regarded as an “American lake.”
If Admiral Miller is right and there are Revolutionary Guard forces on the ships, it would make intercepting the vessels not only legal but necessary. With the civil war in Syria winding down, Iran can afford to project its power by sending forces that would be loyal to Nicolas Maduro. Given the Guard’s behavior in Syria toward civilians and reluctant Syrian troops, it would be a brutal deployment.
Realistically, a confrontation on the high seas with Iran or Venezuela would no doubt result in a U.S. military victory. But it would complicate our efforts to force Maduro out of office by using international pressure. Our allies would scatter if we were seen as heavy-handed enforcement of the sanctions.