Iranian Tankers & the Age of Interdiction

22 Jun 2020

Iranian Tankers & the Age of Interdiction

Two forms of interdiction — the steady expansion of U.S. sanctions and our stunning drift toward  unmasked censorship — have begun to intersect.

By Patrick Lawrence

June 22, 2020



Two forms of interdiction — the steady expansion of U.S. sanctions and our stunning drift toward  unmasked censorship — have begun to intersect. 

Iranian tanker arriving in Venezuelan waters, May 2020. (YouTube)

Over the weekend, a sixth Iranian cargo ship entered Venezuelan waters and is due to dock shortly. It follows a convoy of five Iranian tankers laden with gasoline to supply Venezuelan refineries. The freight this time, according to the Iranian embassy in Caracas, is humanitarian aid — food. There are unconfirmed reports the ship also carries spare parts for refineries in need of repairs.

Earlier last week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that Mexico would sell gasoline to Venezuela for humanitarian reasons were Caracas to ask for assistance. The Maduro government has so far made no such request.

Iran is acting in open defiance of extensive American sanctions against Venezuela. The Islamic Republic, of course, is already burdened by the most extensive sanctions regime the U.S. has ever imposed.

AMLO, as the Mexican leader is commonly known, has just put his hand up to follow Tehran’s example. He acts with forewarning: Last week the U.S. sanctioned Mexican companies that provided water to Venezuela under a previously agreed oil-for-food arrangement.

These events deserve careful consideration. So does the stunning new drift toward open, unmasked censorship in the U.S. Sanctions and censorship are not unrelated. They are two forms of interdiction. Is ours the Age of Interdiction, then? If so, why do we find ourselves in these circumstances and where will this new age lead us? These are our questions.

Sanctions Since 9/11 

President George W. Bush delivers remarks on Sept. 24, 2001, on his executive order on financial sanctions against terrorist networks. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at right; Secretary of Treasury Paul O’Neill in middle. (Tina Hager, George W. Bush Presidential Library)

Sanctioning those the U.S. leadership considers adversaries, usually with no basis in international law, is nothing new, of course. Washington has relied ever more heavily on sanctions since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Along with military deployments, the coups we insist on calling “regime changes,” and various sorts of covert operations, sanctions are the primary instruments of American foreign policy in the 21st century.

Scores of nations are now under one or another form of U.S. sanctions. The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on more than 14,000 people, companies, and assorted institutions in the post–2001 period.

In the last month, it has imposed new sanctions on Venezuela, new sanctions on Syria and new sanctions on dozens of Chinese companies; Congress is now debating bills restricting the activities of Chinese companies in the U.S. and imposing yet more sanctions on Chinese officials for their management of the Uighur question in Xinjiang Province.

Ten days ago the Trump administration announced that it will impose sanctions on officials and judges at the International Criminal Court who are investigating war crimes in Afghanistan during the 19 years since the U.S. invasion shortly after the Sept. 11 events. This surely ranks among Washington’s most daring uses of sanctions, given 123 nations are party to the statute that established the ICC in 2002.

There are obvious advantages to this marked resort to sanctions. Those who suffer most, and not infrequently die, are innocent people in distant nations. These victims of U.S. power are invisible to Americans. No body bags arrive at Dover Air Force Base. Americans don’t have to think about what is being done in their names, as most appear to prefer.

Sanctions Change Plenty

It used to be said that sanctions are pointless because they don’t change anything. This is patently not so. They do not change power structures and policy in targeted countries, and in this regard sanctions regimes must be counted failures. But they change plenty else.

They damage or destroy entire economies. They are flagrant breaches of human rights. They amount to collective punishment — a war crime under the 1949 Geneva Conventions. What they change most is the level of international contempt for the U.S. and — let this be said — for the indifference most Americans display as their leaders advance a foreign policy that is essentially criminal in all of its cardinal aspects.

The Bible-thumping, wife-son-and-dog-loving Mike Pompeo likes to cite scripture in his personal twitter account, @mikepompeo. Go and have a look. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” is among the secretary of state’s recent favorites. “We live by faith, not by sight” is a variant recently quoted. Remarkably, the first of Pompeo’s citations (Matthew 9: 35) is dead wrong and the second (2 Corinthians 5: 7) is inaccurate. But one grasps our wholesome top diplomat’s point well enough: He is blindly indifferent to the consequences of the sanctions policy he oversees along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.  

Vulnerable Foreign Policy

(Twitter @medeabenjamin, March 11, 2020)

The fundamental vulnerability of a foreign policy excessively dependent on sanctions is now emerging, in my read: They are approaching a point of diminishing returns. At the horizon sanctions intended to isolate others, stand to isolate the U.S. if taken to logical extremes. This risk is now evident. Iran and Venezuela are dedicated to building bilateral ties without reference to American sanctions; AMLO’s offer to Caracas is self-evidently an expression of contempt for U.S. prohibitions.

We had better read the winds well. No one joins the U.S. in threatening retaliation in these cases. A stupid move at a time, the policy cliques in Washington are turning us into the loneliest nation on earth.  

When the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear accord two years ago last month, then to begin its shamefully inhumane sanctions program, the European signatories were too mealy-mouthed (per usual) to confront the U.S. directly. But one grows more confident this is changing. The ICC investigations proceed; Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy director, came out last week to oppose the sanctions Washington plans against ICC jurists and investigators.

The Censorship Crisis

Now to the censorship crisis. There is much to be noted about this.

Prominent among those favoring the creeping censorship that now besets us, remarkably enough, are those in media themselves. Censor the president, they insist. Censor our opinion pages, the cry went up at The New York Times after it published a controversial commentary by Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican in the Senate. Cotton is plainly lost anywhere beyond Little Rock’s city limits, fair enough, but he reflects a considerable portion of American opinion for better or worse.

At this point, sanctions and censorship begin to intersect. Pompeo’s State Department has been campaigning since last year to get social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — to block the accounts of Iranian officials. It was only a matter of time before Silicon Valley began cooperating on such projects. 

Over the weekend, Twitter reportedly shut down the account of a just-formed group opposed to America’s insistent drift into a new Cold War with China. Brian Becker, a Washington radio host, posted this following tweet. It includes a link to a petition calling for the account to be reinstated. Your columnist is a signatory:

There is something important to note here. Silicon Valley companies such as those just noted are not media companies in the ordinary meaning of this term. They are not “press.” They are technology companies founded for profit and with no readily evident understanding of media or of questions related to First Amendment. Are we surprised to find them making an utter mess of it as they appoint themselves arbiters of what does and does not deserve the light of day? They are in way, way, way over their unschooled heads.

This same holds in the case of the press itself. Those advocating censorship against their own profession — typing these phrases prompts disbelief, in truth — display little knowledge of media ethics or their responsibilities as journalists — or of history and political economy altogether. I blame this strange phenom partly (and only partly) on generations of lousy education as administered by these people’s seniors.

At bottom, sanctions are the means by which the U.S. keeps the empire in order — if order is what we find when we look out our windows. The new wave of censorship is of a piece with this. It is not ideologically neutral, we must note — censorship never is. In the American case it is dedicated to the preservation of a very specific narrative, the narrative of empire. Those deviating from this narrative are those censored.

So does our habit of sanctioning others come home at last. “The Age of Interdiction” is intended to suggest a political and ideological totality. This cannot endure eternally, just as empires never do, but it is with us now.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale). Follow him on Twitter @thefloutistHis web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site.