U.S. Policy Toward Venezuelan-Iranian Ties

Venezuela is one of the few Latin American countries where U.S. economic inducements like development aid and trade have not repelled Iran’s malign influence or led to significant political reforms. Most countries in Latin America prefer close economic relations with the U.S. rather than U.S. adversaries like Iran. Iran’s penetration into Latin America, especially Venezuela, challenges U.S. interests in the region. Venezuela’s economic and political system and its leftist ideology give Iran an inroad into the Western Hemisphere.

The Obama Administration generally disregarded Venezuelan-Iranian ties, partly because it focused more on its diplomatic outreach to Tehran. For instance, the Obama Administration derailed the DEA’s “Project Cassandra,” whose focus was to crack down on the cocaine sales from which Hezbollah and its affiliated networks in the Western Hemisphere were profiting. While Hezbollah operatives streamed into Latin America on the “Aeroterror” flights, the U.N. assessed that Venezuelan cocaine exports—often destined for the U.S.—skyrocketed from 50 to 250 tons. The administration’s siloed approach to the Iranian nuclear file neglected the Islamic Republic's threats to U.S. interests, including in the Western Hemisphere. That is not to mention the regime’s brutality towards its people and ballistic missile and drone development programs.

The Trump Administration prioritized the Iranian threat. The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign sought to root out Iran’s nefarious activities in Venezuela. On several occasions in 2020, the U.S. Department of the Treasury targeted Iran for providing technicians and technical equipment via the U.S.-designated Mahan Air to support what it referred to as Maduro’s illegitimate and corrupt regime’s efforts to revive Venezuela’s energy sector. Earlier that year, a separate round of sanctions revealed that some of the technical equipment was sourced from China. The Treasury Department also designated Iranian captains for delivering gasoline to the Maduro regime.

Also in 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) seized roughly 1.16 million barrels of Iranian gasoline from four foreign-flagged vessels near the Strait of Hormuz en-route to Venezuela. The U.S. threatened the ship owners and operators with sanctions, after which they surrendered the cargo. The seizure exacerbated Maduro’s gasoline crisis and curtailed IRGC revenues. In late 2021, a U.S. district court ruled in favor of the DOJ, agreeing with the complaint filed in July 2020 before the seizure, that the proceeds from the oil sales would have gone to the IRGC. The DOJ announced that the $26 million from the sale of the fuel would be directed to the U.S. Victims of State-Sponsored Terrorism Fund.

The Trump Administration took an interagency approach to Iranian penetration in Latin America, emphasizing legal action and economic measures. For example, in 2019, the Treasury Department designated Salman Raouf Salman, a senior member of Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization, also known as the External Security Organization (ESO), an elite unit responsible for planning, coordinating, and executing terrorist attacks. The sanctions emphasized his role in coordinating sleeper cells in the Tri-Border region. Soon after, the State Department issued a reward of up to $7 million for information on Salman, noting that he was the point man for operations in the Western Hemisphere, including the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) added President Maduro’s then-Minister of Industries and National Production, Tareck El Aissami, to its Most Wanted List that year. He had already been designated by the Treasury Department for facilitating the drug trade in 2017 and was indicted by the DOJ in 2019. 

The U.S. State Department also took the lead on extending the U.N. arms embargo against Iran that was set to expire in October 2020. It implemented a diplomatic offensive at the U.N. before the U.N. Security Council vote. It took unilateral action in anticipation that China and Russia would oppose reinstatement. President Trump signed a new Executive Order, “Blocking Property of Certain Persons with Respect to the Conventional Arms Activities of Iran.” The State Department then imposed sanctions against various entities in Iran, including MODAFL, and Nicolás Maduro, for having engaged in the transfer of arms or related material to or from Iran.

In 2020, the DOJ, working with the DEA, indicted members of a sprawling criminal network managed by the Maduro regime. The DOJ indicted Nicolás Maduro and other high-ranking government officials for, among other things, their extensive involvement in narcoterrorism, and it indicted Adel El Zabayar, a former Venezuelan parliamentarian and member of the infamous Cartel de los Soles (“Cartel of the Suns”), for “recruit[ing] terrorists from Hezbollah and Hamas to help to plan and organize attacks against United States interests.” The DOJ revealed that the conspiracy had broader ambitions than recruiting and training operatives. Only a few months after El Zabayar returned from his supposed recruitment mission in the Middle East, he received a plane full of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, AK-103s, and sniper rifles, at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Maiquetía, Venezuela.

In May 2022, the U.S. Department of the Treasury levied sanctions against an oil smuggling network generating proceeds for the Quds Force and Hezbollah, targeting an individual who had facilitated payments from PDVSA to Iran. The Biden Administration, however, has not since then levied sanctions against Iran for its ongoing and intensifying support for Maduro. In November 2022, the department again targeted the Quds Force and Hezbollah’s oil revenues but did not mention sales to Venezuela.