US containment efforts against Iran received a boost on Monday when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced US sanction waivers on nations currently importing Iranian oil are coming to an end. Put simply, the United States is attempting to prevent as many nations as possible from purchasing Iranian oil. The move is a dagger aimed at Iran’s economy, which is already in a fragile state. The Trump administration has had Iran in the crosshairs for some time now, and significant progress has been made in containing Iranian expansion and influence in the region. Revoking the sanctions, though an effective step, will certainly escalate the US-Iran confrontation. In fact, Tehran has already threatened to close down the Strait of Hormuz, a threat that is regularly voiced when expanded US economic sanctions are made against Iran.
This time around, the threat could be real, however. Iran’s economy will undoubtedly take a hit from the waiver action, even though China and perhaps even India will continue to purchase Iranian crude despite US wishes. Oil prices rose to six-month highs Tuesday on fears that the US crackdown on Iran will lower supply. Saudi Arabia has responded with assurances that oil producers will ensure supply levels remain at adequate levels.
Iran has likely taken note of the large US naval presence in the Mediterranean. Sixth Fleet exercises currently underway there have put a pair of US aircraft carriers within a few days sail of the Persian Gulf region. Having the USS Abraham Lincoln, and USS John C Stennis carrier strike groups in the region as tensions with Iran threaten to increase gives the Trump administration a powerful force to use if Tehran moves to close the Strait of Hormuz. For now, there are no indications either carrier group is preparing to head towards the Arabian Sea, If Iran’s threats continue, however, and naval activity around the strait increases, the US carriers will begin moving.
Juan Guaido appears to have lost the initiative in his drive to unseat Nicolas Maduro from power. Whether this is a temporary setback or not remains to be seen. However, for the moment Maduro has the upper hand. Emboldened by the arrival of a small number of Russian troops in Venezeula, Maduro has gone on the offensive against Guaido in recent weeks. The self-declared interim president of Venezuela has had his bank accounts frozen, been banned from traveling outside of the country, and been prohibited from running for office. On Tuesday another shot was fired across Guaido’s bow when the Constituents Assembly stripped him of immunity, potentially paving the way for his arrest in the near future.
Guaido is the biggest threat the Maduro regime has had to contend with in its tenure. He has gained a wave of international support, as well as temporarily galvanizing the opposition movement at home. Unfortunately, Guaido seems to have overplayed his hand a bit. Instead of being focused on mobilizing the Venezuelan people, and spearheading the drive to bring about regime change at home, Guaido appears to have been relying on international pressure to bring Maduro down. If this is the case, Guaido has erred. Regime change begins at home, contrary to the lessons that came from Operation Iraqi Freedom. The United States especially would love to see Maduro exit the stage, whether voluntarily or otherwise. But the Trump administration is not about to launch Operation Venezuelan Freedom if Guaido is arrested in the coming days.
From the geopolitical standpoint, the arrival of Russian military personnel in Venezuela cannot be overlooked. Though small in number, a Russian toehold in the Western Hemisphere is producing fits in Washington. Despite the similarities, Venezuela is not Syria. Russia cannot hope to prop up Maduro to the same degree that it did Bashir al-Assad. Nevertheless, Moscow is betting that the presence of its troops will at least force the United States to reconsider any military action against Venezuela should Guaido be detained.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in will travel to Washington DC in April for talks with President Trump on issues of mutual interest, as well as the latest developments with regard to North Korea and Kim Jong Un. The South Korean leader had played an active role as intermediary between Washington and Pyongyang in the weeks leading up to the first US-North Korean Summit in Singapore. Following that, Moon’s role, and that of his country, lessened. Trump and Kim took centerstage and diplomacy between the two nations no longer required the services of an intermediary.
The stalemate reached at the second summit in Hanoi last month could breathe new life into Moon’s prospects to play a pivotal role in efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Relations between the United States and North Korea are regressing temporarily as both sides analyze the situation, and plan their next respective moves. An intermediary could prove useful in the coming months to ensure no retrograde takes place, permanent or otherwise.
Moon’s problem is that he might be overestimating his usefulness at this point. To be fair, his efforts to bring the first summit to life were beneficial. The road to in-person talks between Trump and Kim would’ve been longer if Moon had not met his North Korean opposite at Panmunjom in April, 2018. This meeting threw down the gauntlet and opened the door to Singapore.
The stalemate at Hanoi gives him an opportunity to get back in the game. The matter at hand now is determining exactly how to go about achieving complete denuclearization. South Korea has no nuclear weapons so the southern half of the Korean Peninsula is already denuclearized. North Korea wants the heavy burden of US economic sanctions to be dropped before it takes any further steps towards dropping its nuclear weapons, and ballistic missile program. Moon is very limited with what he can offer Pyongyang to jumpstart the discussion.
South Korea’s president could find himself as Trump’s messenger. This might not be the role Moon wants, but it might wind up being the most crucial job if the United States, South Korea, and North Korea intend to get denuclearization efforts back on track soon.
As Venezuelans endure their nation’s second major power outage in a month, and recently arrived Russian troops go to work on the ground, the United States is beginning to scrutinize Cuba’s role in the Venezuelan crisis. The Trump administration has said publicly that Cuba is the prime reason Nicolas Maduro remains in power. Havana’s support for Maduro and his government has been essential. The close ties between Venezuela and Cuba reach back to the heady days when Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro ruled. These men, and the nations they led, were socialist brothers fighting the influence of the United States across the Caribbean, and South America.
Their successors are trying desperately to keep the tight relationship from unraveling. As Venezuela’s political and financial situations have spiraled out of control, it’s more dependent on Cuba’s aid than ever before. Unfortunately for Cuba, its moves in Venezuela are starting to attract US attention at a point where the stakes are growing high. The US has gathered and unleashed a heavy salvo of diplomatic and economic pressure on Nicolas Maduro’s government to punish, and eventually dismantle it once and for all. The efforts of Cuba, and a handful of nation-states outside of the Western Hemisphere, are working on the opposite hand to keep Venezuela afloat, and diminish the effect US sanctions, and diplomatic pressure are having.
Cuba has been present and active the longest. Its influence is felt on many levels of Venezuelan life. Cuban doctors have been working to prop up Venezuela’s failing medical system. Cuban military advisers have been training the Venezuelan military, and in some instances Cuban officers have assumed command responsibilities in some of Venezuela’s most capable combat units. There are reports that Venezuela’s military strategy is shifting towards fighting a ‘prolonged asymmetrical war’ against a US invasion, and this doctrinal change was made by Cuban military advisers.
How the US chooses to combat Cuba’s influence remains to be seen. Despite a brief warming of relations between Havana, and Washington during the later Obama years, relations are icy once again. The Trump administration does not regard Cuba as a potential ally like the Obama administration had. President Trump, and his national security team regard Cuba as an unrepentant agitator, and supporter of left-wing regimes across the hemisphere. If US policies and actions aimed at Maduro end up having a negative effect on Cuba, the Trump administration will not lose any sleep over it. If bringing down Maduro can help destabilize the Cuban government, the United States is all for it.
The difficult part for Washington will be identifying the right opportunity when it comes along.
Russia wasted no time responding to the United States announcement it was suspending compliance with the INF Treaty. Earlier today, Russian President Vladimir Putin let it be known his country would be doing the same. The door is not completely closed on the landmark arms control agreement though. The US has given Russia a six-month period of time to return to full compliance with the terms of the treaty. Not that Russia has been honoring its treaty commitment in recent years. Washington has long suspected Russia of violating the treaty with suspicions going back to when Barack Obama was in office. Little was done by the previous administration to redress the situation, however. President Trump’s approach to the matter has been more decisive. The Trump administration has openly called out Russia and provided evidence that at the very least suggests Moscow is not adhering to the terms of the INF treaty.
The latest US action was anticipated and can hardly be considered a surprise. Fair warning was given and Russia did not respond to it. If Moscow does not begin complying with the treaty terms in six months, the INF treaty will be terminated. The US suspending compliance doesn’t herald the start of a new arms race, contrary to the warnings of some pundits. The race has been underway since Russia breached the terms of the treaty. The United States is now forced to play catch-up in essence. The current mindset in Washington is simple: Russia has not been restricted by the treaty in recent years, so why should the US continue to allow its own hands to be tied?
The Atlantic Alliance is standing behind the United States on this matter. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC: “All [European] allies agree with the United States because Russia has violated the treaty for several years. They are deploying more and more of the new nuclear capable missiles in Europe.” This week US envoys will be dispatched to the capital cities of numerous alliance members and detailed briefings on the situation will be given.