Why does the U.S. sanction Iran again and again while negotiating with Venezuela? | Opinion
It is impossible to not notice the stark difference between how the United States approaches negotiations with Iran and Venezuela, two regimes who are also holding American citizens as hostages for leverage in these talks. While negotiations have not stopped the U.S. from sanctioning Iran, no sanctions have been issued against Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro in more than 22 months.
Iran has been sanctioned repeatedly for its malign behavior. For more than a year, the U.S. has sanctioned companies helping Iran sell its petroleum and petrochemical products. It has sanctioned Iran’s Morality Police, its Ministry of Intelligence and Security and its Minister of Intelligence for cyber-related activities. The US has sanctioned Iranians for shutting down internet access and for enacting violence against protestors. It has also sanctioned entities related to Iran’s ballistic missile program, employees of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting who have engaged in censorship, and even a company for shipping Iranian UAVs to Russia for its unprovoked war against Ukraine.
The Department of Treasury has also announced sanctions to “severely restrict Iran’s oil and petrochemical exports” on “anyone involved in facilitating these illegal sales and transactions.” A similar statement aimed at restricting Venezuela’s oil exports would be welcomed and applauded, but policies are heading in the opposite direction.
Instead, Maduro continues to reap benefits while the U.S. is offering a reward of up to $15 million for his arrest and has announced criminal charges against him for directing the Cartel de los Soles, and for running “a narco-terrorism partnership with the FARC for the past 20 years.”
More than one year ago, officials representing Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó and the broader opposition sat across the table from representatives of the illegitimate Maduro regime in Mexico City. These conversations did not help in bringing democracy back to Venezuela, and future political negotiations will likely encounter the same disastrous fate.
Representatives from both sides are seeking to return to Mexico to sign a “social agreement” whereby United Nations organizations can provide food and medicine to Venezuelans. Maduro could have welcomed humanitarian and health assistance to Venezuela for years, but he chose not to. Instead, Maduro is using the suffering Venezuelan people for leverage to benefit his own self-interests; the only reason he is agreeing to it now is because it will provide political cover to expand operations with Chevron.
Several oil companies left Venezuela, but others — such as Italian oil company Eni and Spain’s Repsol — have been allowed to restart operations. While the U.S. applauded Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil for divesting away from Russia, it has simultaneously encouraged companies to do business with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), including after reports that oil exports from Venezuela to Iran and China are increasing.
Believing that lifting sanctions or reaching a “social agreement” will halt Venezuelans from migrating is a fallacy. Venezuelan migrants have surpassed 7 million, making it one of the largest displacement crises in the world. Between 2014 and 2018, more than 2.3 million Venezuelans had already fled Maduro’s tyranny even though the sectoral sanctions targeting Maduro’s oil, financial and defense and security sectors did not go into effect until 2019. The reason behind the inhumane suffering of the Venezuelan people, which is fomenting mass migration, is Maduro, not sanctions.
Nevertheless, Maduro is emboldened. Easing sanctions and leveraging the license for Chevron are solely aimed at convincing Maduro to go to Mexico and are not contingent upon what, if any, substantive concessions Maduro is willing to offer regarding any future free and fair election. This is unconscionable given that Maduro has repeatedly left the negotiating table and continues to be rewarded for his depraved behavior.
This makes it especially disturbing that the U.S. is seeking to relax sanctions and allow companies to do business with a criminal entity like PDVSA, which was sanctioned in 2019 by the Department of Treasury, which stated then that PDVSA has “long been a vehicle for corruption. A variety of schemes have been designed to embezzle billions of dollars from PDVSA for the personal gain of corrupt Venezuelan officials and businessmen.” The U.S. also recently removed Carlos Erik Malpica Flores — the nephew of Maduro’s spouse Cilia Flores and former senior executive at PDVSA — from its sanctions list.
The U.S. has alternative options that do not include Maduro’s blood oil. Instead, the U.S. can produce more oil at home or can even lean on allies such as Canada and Mexico — already our top oil-importing partners — to help alleviate the prices at the pump.
Besides, there is no guarantee that easing sanctions against Venezuela’s oil sector will increase production to a significant level that will make a dent in the global energy market, especially when accounting for the deterioration and negligence of PDVSA and its facilities. Venezuela’s oil exports dropped by 35% between 2015 and 2018 — before sectoral sanctions went into effect in 2019.
Even more frightening is that any support to improve operational conditions for PDVSA will be managed by Maduro’s Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami. In 2017, El Aissami was designated as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking.
That same year, then-Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Ambassador Bill Brownfield, testified before Congress that the highest levels of the illegitimate Maduro regime benefitted from billions of dollars connected to narcotrafficking. He said “there was almost no institution in Venezuela that was involved in security or law enforcement affairs that had not been penetrated to some extent by professional drug trafficking organizations.”
Whether it’s trying to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions or attempting to bring democratic reforms to Venezuela, both rogue regimes are looking to extract concessions in hopes of gaining an economic windfall. Policies that provide a lifeline or offer any kind of legitimacy to Maduro and his criminal enterprise will only prolong the suffering of the people of Venezuela.
Ultimately, it will be difficult to bring democratic reforms to Venezuela if Maduro feels no pressure by the U.S. and the rest of the international community to change his nefarious behavior. Responsible nations should demand much more from the Maduro regime since relaxing sanctions to encourage political negotiations could instead help enrich a repressive dictatorship.
Eddy Acevedo is chief of staff and senior adviser to Ambassador Mark Green, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He formerly was national security adviser at the U.S. Agency for International Development and senior foreign policy adviser for former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. This opinion is solely that of the author and does not represent the views of the Wilson Center.
This opinion piece was originally published by the Sun Sentinel on Nov. 22, 2022.