Russian oil hard to replace under Biden’s human rights guidelines

When President Joe Biden declared a ban on Russian imports of oil and other energy sources, he said he was delivering a “powerful blow to the Russian war machine” in Ukraine.

But the move means Washington must find other sources of crude elsewhere, and its search for new supplies, from Venezuela to Iran to Saudi Arabia, underscores the challenge of fueling America’s oil-dependent economy. while preserving President Biden’s values-based foreign policy.

Why we wrote this

The hunt for oil to replace banned Russian imports is forcing Washington to make tough choices. But in one case, it could also lead to a happier outcome.

President Biden’s attempt to revive the Iran nuclear deal, and thus revive Iranian oil exports, had seemed on track until Russia – a key signatory to the deal – sabotaged it. last week. Today, Western diplomats are looking for creative ways to break the deadlock.

Washington’s hope for more oil from Saudi Arabia has put Mr Biden in a moral dilemma. He had banned offensive arms sales to the kingdom and refused to deal with de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman on human rights grounds. Now Riyadh hopes it can escape such punishment by pumping more crude.

In Venezuela, however, the picture is brighter. A decision to end US sanctions against South America’s biggest oil producer could help break the deadlock in talks between President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition, which could strengthen the rule of law and improve the humanitarian situation in the country.

Mexico City; and Amman, Jordan

When President Joe Biden announced a U.S. ban on imports of oil and other Russian energy sources last week, he called the sanction a “powerful blow to Putin’s war machine” that is currently invading the country. Ukraine.

But the move means Washington must find other sources of crude elsewhere, and its search for new supplies, from Venezuela to Iran to Saudi Arabia, underscores the challenge of fueling America’s oil-dependent economy. while preserving President Biden’s values-based foreign policy.

“There is an energy crisis in the world. If you want to focus on values, you have to pay more,” says Umud Shokri, a Washington-based energy security adviser and energy diplomacy expert.

Why we wrote this

The hunt for oil to replace banned Russian imports is forcing Washington to make tough choices. But in one case, it could also lead to a happier outcome.

This stark fact, combined with the West’s need for oil, is driving American diplomacy in new directions.

In Venezuela, oil could prove to be the lubricant for stalled negotiations between the government and the opposition, and for the end of US sanctions.

In Iran, the global thirst for oil could rewrite the rules governing nuclear negotiations with the government in Tehran.

And Washington now appears ready to deal with de facto Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman, so far an outcast for the Biden administration over allegations he ordered the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“The international energy market has its own dynamics, regardless of values, or whether an energy-producing country is democratic or not,” Shokri said.

Here’s a look at how the US ban on Russian oil is creating new diplomatic dilemmas — and opportunities — elsewhere.

Iran nuclear deal still elusive

In Iran, Washington is rethinking multilateral diplomacy.

Diplomats had hoped in recent weeks that Tehran and the international community were close to signing a deal that would have meant an end to sanctions on Iranian oil exports in exchange for a cap on Iranian uranium enrichment.

Russian Foreign Ministry/PA Press Service

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands after a joint press conference in Moscow on March 15, 2022.

However, Russia put the brakes on negotiations in Vienna last week by demanding that Russian-Iranian trade be exempted from sanctions imposed on Moscow in response to the war in Ukraine.

Russia is a signatory to the original 2015 nuclear deal that Washington withdrew from under President Donald Trump in 2017 and is now trying to re-engage. Moscow’s deal is needed to resuscitate the deal, and its demand put talks on hold for months.

Ever since Tehran rejected any deal without Russia, US and European diplomats have reportedly been mulling over the idea of ​​a stripped-down, interim deal that would enshrine the groundwork for a deal to lift Western sanctions and limit the enrichment of sub-weapons grade uranium.

Even if that happens, Iran seems likely to assert its advantage as an oil producer. On Sunday, a majority of Iranian lawmakers released a petition urging the government to use growing demand for its oil as leverage. “Now that the Ukraine crisis has heightened the West’s need for Iran’s energy sector, the United States’ need to lower oil prices must not be met without heeding Iran’s just demands,” reads -on in the petition.

“I’m not optimistic about getting a deal in the short term,” says Umud Shokri, the energy expert. The West could be ready to lift sanctions against Iran which “have had no effect on changing the regime’s behavior”, he believes. But Russia fears that opening Iranian taps will result in lower world prices.

Is the United States ready to backtrack?

In Saudi Arabia, the United States’ relationship with its ally pits American energy needs against its values.

As one of the largest oil producers in the world, Saudi Arabia retains influence over OPEC production. He is also waging a war in Yemen that has killed more than 377,000 people, creating a historic humanitarian crisis.

Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of the Saudi Royal Court/Reuters/File

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a Shura Council session in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 20, 2019. President Joe Biden is reportedly reconsidering his refusal to meet the Crown Prince, on human rights grounds, in order to secure more oil.

The Biden administration has banned the sale of offensive weapons to Riyadh and the US president has refused to deal directly with Crown Prince Mohammed over his alleged role in Mr Khashoggi’s death.

Looking for oil, however, Mr Biden has not only tried to call the Saudi prince – a call the prince reportedly refused – but is also considering a visit to Saudi Arabia to meet Crown Prince Mohammed publicly.

“The crown prince has waged repression and war because he thinks he will not be held accountable,” says Abdullah Alaoudh, research director for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at the organization Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN, Washington-based). ) and son of a high-profile Saudi political detainee.

“Just imagine if he is fully embraced by the White House – what will he do then?”

The Saudi government has reportedly made any increase in oil production conditional on the resumption of offensive arms shipments and the legal immunity of the crown prince and his close advisers, who face multiple lawsuits implicating them in the murder of Ms. Khashoggi, including a lawsuit filed by DAWN, the organization founded by Mr. Khashoggi.

US officials decline to comment on US-Saudi talks. But by softening its stance on Riyadh since Russia invaded Ukraine, ‘the Biden administration has made the crown prince feel like they need him more than he needs them’ , explains Mr. Alaoudh.

A beacon of hope for Venezuela

In Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, US efforts to ease its energy crisis could help reignite a diplomatic standoff.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks after signing an agreement with Russia, at the presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela February 16, 2022. Maduro is tempted by the prospect of an end to U.S. sanctions on the Venezuelan oil as Washington seeks new sources of crude.

US sanctions on Venezuelan oil in 2019 sent a strong message in favor of democracy, but observers say they also pushed Washington into a corner. Caracas moved closer to Russia and further cracked down on political opponents; the sanctions have worsened an already dire humanitarian situation that has forced millions of Venezuelans to flee their country; and there have been few opportunities to trigger stalled negotiations between President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition.

“Ukraine has changed the calculus,” says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, offering the Biden administration a chance to “get out from under” Trump-era sanctions. “Because oil and gas prices are so high and it is now a national security issue, the United States may be more willing to negotiate sanctions with Maduro to help break the Venezuelan impasse. “, he says, although lifting the sanctions would probably be a daunting task. out of process.

Even if it were quick, it wouldn’t make any immediate difference to the U.S. oil supply, points out Terry Lynn Karl, a Stanford University professor and author of “The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petroleum.” States”. Production is low and could take a year or two to ramp up, she adds. “You don’t just turn on a tap and oil flows again and prices go down and everything is fine.”

But Venezuelan oil is attractive; transportation costs are lower than in the Middle East, and refineries suitable for heavy Venezuelan crude already exist on the Gulf Coast. The whiff of an end to sanctions could bring Mr Maduro back to the negotiating table in Mexico City, where talks with opposition leader Juan Guaidó stalled last fall.

Dr. Karl is cautious. “Right now, I don’t think this is an opportunity for democracy,” she said. “But this is a huge opportunity to create a roadmap for negotiations with real benchmarks,” she adds, perhaps improving the humanitarian situation and strengthening the rule of law.

“You never build democracy from the outside,” she says. “You can only help.”

Edward N. Arrington