By Benjamin Weil
November 6, 2020
Now that Election Day is behind us, the president will need to allocate more time towards addressing overseas developments. One such development is Iran’s plan to smuggle ICBMs into Venezuela. Those missiles have the capability to reach the entire East Coast of the U.S., as well as parts of the Midwest and Southwest.
Much has been written about this threat, but there have not been many suggestions as to how the U.S. can prevent it. I would like to suggest a couple of policies, some of which buy the U.S. more time to tackle this threat, while others could thwart it entirety. These policies are meant to complement existing sanctions and “maximum pressure campaign” initiatives that are already in place.
Before outlining these policy options, we must understand how Iran operates and estimate its capabilities. With its strategy in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic aims to push any future war away from its borders. It began by creating militia forces across the region and then established smuggling routes to arm those groups. This allows Iran to threaten its enemies through proxies without having to bear any responsibility or consequence. A classic example of this strategy is Hezbollah in Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border.
Additionally, Iran has cultivated close relationships with Latin American countries over the past few decades; mainly with Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia. Most of Iran’s activities in Latin America are carried out through the IRGC and Hezbollah’s 910 unit. As the U.S. continues its crippling pressure on Iran, and with the expiration of the UN arms embargo, it has become clear that Iran would like to copy its Middle East model in Latin America by stationing ICBMs in America’s backyard—Venezuela.
For any policy response to be successful, the U.S. must first be able to detect when a shipment contains missiles and when it does not. The first policy I would recommend is for our intelligence community to have people on the ground in Iranian and Venezuelan ports. Gathering intelligence on logistical channels, the timing of shipments and access to planes and ships is crucial. The successful assassination of Qasem Soleimani is in part attributable to this exact tactic. I would recommend American espionage, which may already be underway, to tap into specific ports. This action alone will not buy time, nor will it prevent Iranian shipments, but it will ensure that any action we take against this threat will be based on accurate information.
The second recommendation would be diplomacy. Similar to what we have been doing in Europe, we must team up with our Latin American allies to designate Hezbollah, in its entirely—political and military arms alike—as a terrorist organization. This would slow down Iranian activity in Latin America and buy some time.
The next step would be booting Iran out of the various trade blocs and organizations in Latin America. Preventing IRGC and Hezbollah from operating in Latin America will weaken Iran’s logistics in the area and force Tehran to focus only on its strongest alliances—allowing America to focus its efforts on a handful of countries instead of the entire region.
Lastly, the U.S. should collaborate with African countries. Iran recently managed to fly a Boeing 747 plane, belonging to a U.S.-sanctioned airline associated with the IRGC, to Caracas. While the distance between Tehran and Caracas is roughly 12,000km and a Boeing 747 is capable of flying 14,000km (according to the Boeing website), the Iranian plane had to stop in Africa on its way, supposedly to refuel. Having African countries prohibit Iran from refueling in Africa, or better yet, not allow Iranian airlines over their airspace, would force Iran to fly planes around the African continent, thereby lengthening flights to more than 21,000km—beyond the range of a 747. This would completely stop any cargo plane from transferring Iranian ICBMs to Latin America, and would narrow the regime’s options down to cargo ships alone.
While American sanctions and naval activity in the Persian Gulf and Atlantic Ocean have been able to prevent numerous Iranian breaches of sanctions, they have not been 100 percent successful. If we want to prevent the next Cuban Missile Crisis, we must continue with the financial pressure on Iran and add diplomatic and intelligence layers to these efforts.