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White House is pressed on potential oil deals with Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran

The White House on Monday pushed back on concerns about the Biden administration’s willingness to cut deals with countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela as it looks for ways to blunt skyrocketing fuel prices in the United States.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki faced multiple questions during Monday’s briefing on how the administration views these trade-offs of bartering with countries “that may have engaged in unsavory actions in the past,” as reports trickled out in recent days that President Joe Biden and European counterparts are discussing a ban on Russian oil imports to further punish President Vladimir Putin for his country’s attack on Ukraine.

The Biden administration is in a tricky position as it faces bipartisan calls to ban Russian oil, a move that would upend markets in a global economy still recovering from the pandemic. As the White House weighs its next move, inflation tops the minds of Americans feeling the squeeze of rising prices, especially at the gas pump.

U.S. officials met face-to-face with Venezuelan officials in Caracas over the weekend and discussed potentially easing oil sanctions on the country as part of the strategy to combat rising prices in the U.S. During Monday’s briefing, Psaki was asked about Venezuela’s leader and whether it was “really worth doing business with a despot like Nicolás Maduro to drive down gas prices.”

“I think that’s leaping several stages ahead in any process,” Psaki said, adding that oil was just one element of the discussions. “At this point in time, I don’t have anything to predict. It’s ongoing.”

Psaki said that while energy security was a key part of the meetings in Venezuela, U.S. officials also discussed the welfare of detained U.S. citizens. She had a similar message on negotiations in Saudi Arabia and Iran, noting that the talks were in progress and that energy was just one piece of the multipronged discussions.

In February, Brett McGurk, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Amos Hochstein, a State Department special envoy for energy affairs, traveled to Saudi Arabia, where Psaki said the officials discussed a range of issues. She said Biden did not have plans at the moment to travel to the country.

“[They] went to Saudi Arabia to discuss a range of issues, including the war in Yemen, including security in the region and certainly including energy security,” Psaki said. “They had the discussion, it’s in everyone’s interest to reduce the impact on the global oil marketplace.”

Psaki said “the discussion of oil” was also a part of negotiations for the Iran nuclear talks, which she said were “getting closer” to a deal. But Moscow has thrown a wrench in the discussions, coming forward with last-minute demands, in what appears to be convenient timing as the threat to Russia’s critical oil revenue grows.

There was hope that the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany and the European Union could clinch a deal on Saturday, which would heavily restrict Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief — bringing a vast supply of Iranian crude oil back to the global market.

The U.S. has long had complicated and tense relationships with all three countries, which in recent years have been accused of everything from election fraud to human rights atrocities. Before he took office, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for its part in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and as president released a U.S. intelligence report that suspected the involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The U.S. in December hit a dozen Iranian officials and entities accused of committing human rights abuses — like repressing protesters and political activists, as well as holding activists in brutal prison conditions — with sanctions.

And in Venezuela, the Biden administration is actively working to guarantee freedom for a number of detained Americans, including three former U.S. service members. While the war in Ukraine hurried the timing of the negotiations with Caracas, the administration had been discussing the resumption of talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition, as a way to promote a fair presidential election in 2024, The Wall Street Journal reported. The Trump administration slapped the country with sanctions in December 2020, right before President Donald Trump left office, after the U.S. said Venezuela’s election was fraudulent.

The White House press secretary on Monday was repeatedly pressed on her answers, particularly after she noted that the Biden administration’s view was that the U.S. needed to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil to avoid future crises.

“So, you guys think that asking Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, or Iran, is reducing our dependence on foreign oil?” Fox News’ Peter Doocy then asked.

“I just outlined each of those specific scenarios and the range of discussions that we’re having with each of those countries,” Psaki said. “I don’t think anybody is advocating for Iran to continue acquiring a nuclear weapon, perhaps except for the former president, who pulled us out of the deal.”

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