On Thursday, May 14, 2020, Reuters reported that the United States was weighing measures to confront the Iranian vessels carrying gasoline to Venezuela. The US has imposed sanctions on Venezuela, attempting to strangle its economy. And it has been attempting to do the same to Iran. Washington has also actively supported regime change in both countries, although it has been able to do more harm to Venezuela, perhaps because of proximity. But neither Iran nor Venezuela has cowed, even if they have sustained economic damage. Venezuela, in particular, has found itself in need of fuel as a result of the sanctions. And Iran is there to assist. But it is not charity. It is, again, normal trade. So, somehow, the US perceives the whole thing as an affront to itself: the countries whose economies it has attempted to destroy are bailing each other out where necessary.
That can’t happen, America likes to think. There have been unconfirmed reports that the US Navy has deployed warships and a patrol aircraft to the Caribbean for a potential encounter with the Iranian vessels.
Talk about a world bully!
Will the US go ahead with a plan to intercept the ships — all of them Iranian-flagged — and take the crew captive?
The Iranian vessels do not have security detail. Iran has not dispatched military vessels to accompany the gasoline tankers, both a sign of self-confidence and that Tehran is not after escalation with any country.
Another, less dramatic scenario would be the US merely blocking passage, forcing the vessels to go back.
Both scenarios are possible.
Scenario 1 would be very provocative. US forces boarding Iranian vessels and detaining the crew would be a major escalation with Iran. Iran has vowed to respond to any threat to the vessels. Tensions are already high between the two countries: the US assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, a very senior, very revered commander, in January, and Iran responded by firing missiles at US bases in Iraq, injuring scores of American soldiers.
That episode seemed to have ended when the US stood down and merely absorbed the Iranian missile attack, but the two countries’ nerves could still be on edge. And the US may believe that now that Iran has responded to the assassination, America could have another window to go ahead and elbow the country in the ribs all over again.
A new US provocation is also likely because, while the Iranian gasoline tankers will not be sailing in US waters, America would perceive the region as its “turf,” much as it did when it introduced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823.
War, from one perspective, would not be a welcome development for President Donald Trump just before the presidential election in the US in November this year: during his campaign for presidency in 2016, he constantly complained about America’s wars and blamed past presidents for directing capital to combat. Paradoxically, from another perspective, war could potentially secure Mr. Trump another term: as president, he has bungled his response to the coronavirus epidemic, the United States has soared to the top of the list of the worst-hit countries in a short span of time, and a war could rally Americans — even those politically opposed to him — around the incumbent president on national, patriotic grounds.
The consequences could be very real, including for the world. Iran and the US have many times in the past neatly avoided a hard confrontation. US forces are constantly roaming in the waters of the Persian Gulf, thousands of miles away from US territory. And Iranian military forces, local to the region, are present, too, to provide security for Iranian and other vessels passing through their native territory and the major marine trade route. Standoffs in the Persian Gulf are likely, and often, they do occur, although on very limited scales.
But impounding Iranian vessels and detaining crew could entail very serious consequences. US law, meaning the US’s unilateral sanctions, are binding to no one other than the US itself, and America cannot invoke such law for an encounter in international waters, especially with potentially grave consequences for the world if a war does break out.
Also note that blocking shipments to Venezuela militarily would amount to an embargo on the Latin American country, effectively like the one the US imposed on Cuba in 1962, during the Cold War.
Let’s hope America doesn’t… well… act like America!