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Will the US try to interdict Iranian tankers bound for Venezuela?

As five Iranian oil tankers steam toward Venezuela in defiance of U.S. sanctions on both states, President Donald Trump is being presented with options for stopping the delivery of the petroleum fuel they carry. The prospect of killing two “rogue state” birds with one stone must be attractive to Trump. His policy against both countries is “maximum pressure,” after all. But what could the U.S. do, would it be legal, and would it make any sense?

Iran’s Fars news agency claimed that four U.S. Navy warships are in the Caribbean for a “possible confrontation with Iran’s tankers.” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned against U.S. naval movements to intervene and disrupt the transfer of fuel to Venezuela. This was an overreaction. The guided missile destroyers USS Lassen, Preble, and Farragut, along with the littoral combat ship USS Detroit and P-8 maritime patrol aircraft happen to be currently on patrol in the Caribbean. They are there for a stepped-up counter-narcotics smuggling operation that began on April 1. If directed, their mission could change, of course, to interdict the Iranian tankers.

It would be highly unusual and provocative for the U.S. Navy to stop and board the Iranian ships on the high seas, but not totally without precedent. In 2003, the Spanish navy, based on a tip from U.S. intelligence, interdicted a North Korean freighter carrying Scud missiles to Yemen. That interdiction was legal because the ship, the So San, was not registered. In the 1990s, the U.S. Navy stopped and boarded ships transiting the Gulf to prevent Saddam Hussein from exporting oil in violation of U.N. sanctions.

In the current case, no U.N. resolution bans Iran from exporting fuel or Venezuela from importing it. There are only U.S. unilateral sanctions, which have no provisions for stopping and searching.

If the ships were carrying foreign flags of convenience, as many merchant ships do, U.S. boarding agreements with most of those countries, such as Panama, the Marshall Islands, and Liberia, possibly could provide a pretext on grounds of suspicion that they are carrying narcotics or materials relating to weapons of mass destruction. While this fig leaf might be plausible for cargo ships, however, it would not pass the laugh test for tankers. In any case, the ships in question are Iranian owned and registered; due to U.S. sanctions, Iranian oil tankers no longer carry foreign flags.

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.

Another conceivable legal justification for interdiction would be if Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaido, recognized by the U.S. and some 50 other countries as the legitimate ruler of the country, were to ask for U.S. assistance in seizing the ships if they enter Venezuelan territorial waters. 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.”

Miller hastens to say that he would not recommend interdicting the Iranian tankers. The estimated $45 million value of the petroleum products they carry is insignificant to either economy. “These are paupers exchanging pennies on the street corner,” he told me, adding “Let’s not use a howitzer to kill a fly.”

Indeed, it would be senseless for the U.S. to try to stop the petroleum transfer. It would be condemned by nearly every other country in the world as an abuse of U.S. power, with both Iran and Venezuela benefitting from political sympathy. An interdiction would give Iran grounds for retaliation against U.S. military or civilian assets anywhere in the world at a time and place of its choosing.

Going after the IRGC in the Caribbean would also provide a dangerous precedent for attacking IRGC assets elsewhere, as American uber hawks have been advocating. To date, application of the AUMF against Iran has been limited to the strike against Soleimani. Applying it to IRGC troops riding shotgun on the tankers would open up an entire new front in an undeclared war.

Realizing all of this, the Trump administration might instead seek non-kinetic means of stopping the tankers. On May 9, a cyber attack was already employed, reportedly by Israel, against the port from which the tankers set course. This was apparently related not to the Venezuelan connection but to an alleged Iranian involvement in a failed April 24 hacking attempt on Israeli water distribution networks.

Economic and diplomatic tools are also available. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asked all countries to deny overflight and landing clearance to Iranian aircraft belonging to Mahan Air, a sanctioned entity that has reportedly transferred $500 million worth of gold from Venezuela to Iran. The current fuel shipment is apparently connected with that deal, which also involved Iranian help repairing Venezuelan refineries.

Bribery options might also be considered, as in the case of Iran’s Adrian Darya 1 oil tanker, after it was released last summer by the British territory of Gibraltar. In an email to the captain, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook offered a several million dollar reward for steering the ship to a country where the U.S. could seize it. “With this money you can have any life you wish and be well-off in old age,” Hook wrote. When the ship then steered round in several “doughnut” maneuvers, it appeared that the captain may have been considering the offer, but he ultimately did not respond and instead sailed on to the original destination of Syria. Given this failure, Hook might think twice about trying such imaginative gambits.

Most of these options are fanciful. U.S. pressure can make Iran-Venezuela trade more difficult and costly, but not stop it entirely. Nor does it matter. The Iranian and Venezuelan economies face far greater strains as a result of their own mismanagement and U.S. sanctions, now exacerbated by the coronavirus. There is absolutely no need to consider military interdiction and the resulting potential for larger-scale conflict. The costs to the U.S., and to the world, would greatly exceed any benefits.

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