By Eric Shawn
April 2, 2021
“It should come as no surprise that two of the world’s leading human rights abusers have become even closer over the last several months. All American lawmakers should be deeply concerned about the growing ties between Tehran and Caracas,” warned Bryan E. Leib, executive director of the New York-based activist group Iranian Americans for Liberty. “Their aggression cannot be left unchecked and this strengthening alliance affects every liberty-loving member of the free world.”
Tehran’s outreach in the Western Hemisphere has been ongoing for several years, causing alarm among former Trump administration officials. But the ties have accelerated to help prop up the Iranian economy against continuing U.S. sanctions. This comes as the Biden administration appears to be considering pulling back on some of those measures, as an incentive for the Iranian regime to try and jump-start the nuclear deal negotiations.
“As an opposition government minister in Venezuela, a country living under sanctions, I’ve watched a regime impoverish their people, abuse their most basic human rights, yet continue to live lavishly as a result of sophisticated sanctions busting,” said opposition leader Julio Borges, the Venezuelan caretaker government’s foreign affairs commissioner.
Venezuela is Tehran’s closest ally in the region and officials say it serves as a lifeline for the besieged regime by swapping oil shipments for jet fuel and gold.
“With the help of a number of regimes who are set on undermining humanitarian values and the rules-based order, the current regime in Venezuela smuggles our national gold reserves out in return for cash and refined oil products – impoverishing future generations.”
Iran ships its tankers across the globe to maintain its supply line. Reuters recently reported that “jet fuel is shipped in the Iranian tankers that deliver gasoline to Venezuela,” and that both countries “celebrated the Iranian fuel shipments as a method of resisting pressure from their common adversary,” which is the United States.
The U.S. Department of Justice has been seizing oil from Iranian tankers bound for Venezuela. The oil will be sold and the proceeds, potentially in the millions of dollars, will be distributed to U.S. victims of international terrorism through the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund. The program was established in 1996 to pay monetary damages to victims of state sponsors of terrorism from Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Syria.
“Russia moves out Venezuelan gold reserves, Iran provides gasoline and additives for gold, and the UAE provides cash, in euros for the gold. This ‘Club of Other’ appears to be able to operate with impunity beyond the reach of authority – and indeed includes sovereign states like Iran and the UAE working unilaterally together to undermine American interests which have imposed sanctions on the Maduro regime,” said Borges.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido has gone so far as to say that the shipments extend beyond petroleum products, to uranium that could be used by Iran to manufacture nuclear bombs.
“The Maduro regime has become a crime syndicate while importing oil from Iran. At present, a preliminary investigation exists into uranium stockpiles in Venezuela and countries to which this material could be sent,” Guaido told the newspaper Israel Hayom. “We believe Iran is one of the main destinations.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Guaido earlier this month, and the Biden administration recognizes him as the country’s interim president. In addition, a federal criminal complaint filed last week charged 10 Iranian nationals with running a two-decade-long scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran, using front companies in the UAE and elsewhere.
The Department of Justice says the group hid more than $300 million in transactions, and cited “the U.S. government’s efforts to disrupt Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ‘international financial network'” as a reason to try and avoid detection.
In January, the U.S. government said it collected $7 million of Iranian funds for terrorist victims from a $1 billion global scheme using illicit Iranian-owned funds that violated U.S. sanctions.
The Department of Justice also moved “to seize money held in a sovereign wealth fund in the United Arab Emirates” as part of the alleged operation. But it is the reach of Tehran in our hemisphere that has especially concerned policy makers.
“Iran could use some Central and South American countries as a launch pad for operations against Washington and its interests in the region,” warned an Atlantic Council study in 2019.
“There is no constructive role for Tehran to play anywhere south of the U.S.-Mexico border.”
“The Biden administration would be wise to build on the sanctions that were enacted under President Trump because economic sanctions work. Ignoring this or doing nothing will only continue to put American interests and our allies in the region in harm’s way,” said Leib.