The American conservative William Buckley Jr used to say that if the communists occupied the Sahara the desert would run out of sand. Something similar has been happening in the ruined socialist dictatorship of Venezuela this week: the country with the world’s largest oil reserves has been importing petrol from an equally desperate Iran. The arrival of a flotilla of tankers was a calculated snub to the Trump administration, which has imposed tight sanctions on both countries. Now an axis of resistance has effectively declared that it can get along without bowing to the United States.
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s hapless leader, ordered fighter jets to escort the tankers on the last leg of their journey while Iran treated the event as if it was a modern-day version of the Cold War Berlin airlift. It was plainly an act of anti-American solidarity yet the US did not respond and did not try to block the tankers. According to the Iranian narrative this is because President Trump was afraid of reprisal attacks elsewhere in the world…
The fear is that the tankers are just part of an attempt to build an Iranian bridgehead in Latin America, one that could be used to strike out at the US. In this reading, Iran rather than Venezuela is the fundamental problem. Maduro is a grotesque leader who is doing untold harm to his people. But as yet, for all his bluster, he does not pose a direct challenge to the United States.
Iran, on the other hand, is determined to show that it is more than a regional player. Its wooing of a fellow pariah state carries an echo of the way that the Soviet Union cultivated Cuba during the Cold War: it is an attempt to expose the soft underbelly of the United States and thus lay claim to greater respect. Tehran, though wounded by sanctions and the humiliation of the Soleimani killing, is more dangerous than ever.