The first of five Iranian tankers carrying fuel for gasoline-starved Venezuela entered the South American country's exclusive economic zone.

A view of the vessel the Clavel sailing on international waters crossing the Gibraltar stretch, May 20, 2020.
A view of the vessel the Clavel sailing on international waters crossing the Gibraltar stretch, May 20, 2020. (AP)

The first of five tankers loaded with gasoline sent from Iran reached Venezuelan waters late Saturday, expected to temporarily ease the South American nation’s fuel crunch while defying Trump administration sanctions targeting the two US foes.

The oil tanker Fortune encountered no immediate signs of US interference as it eased through Caribbean waters toward the Venezuelan coast and Venezuelan officials celebrated the arrival.

“Iran and Venezuela have always supported each other in times of difficulty,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted. 

“Today, the first ship with gasoline arrives for our people.”

The tanker and four behind it were finishing a high seas journey amid a burgeoning relationship between Iran and Venezuela, both of which Washington says are ruled by repressive regimes.

Russ Dallen, head of the Miami-based investment firm Caracas Capital Markets, confirmed the Fortune's location using ship tracking technology. He said the Clavel, the last of the five ships, was about 3 1/2 days behind the lead tanker.

Gasoline shortages

Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, but it must import gasoline because production has crashed in the last two decades.

The Iranian tankers hold what analysts estimate to be enough gasoline to supply Venezuela for two to three weeks.

Deep gasoline shortages have plagued Venezuela for years, though the problem had until recently largely spared the capital of Caracas, the largest population centre and political seat.

Drivers must wait for days in lines that snake through neighbourhood to fill up with government-subsidised gasoline that costs less than a penny for a tank.

Wealthier drivers with US dollars turn to the black market, where gas costs up to $12 a gallon. That’s a small fortune in Venezuela, where the monthly minimum wage equals less than $5.

The US accuses Iran and other nations of propping up Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. It’s among nearly 60 nations that back opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate president, contending that Maduro illegitimately won a 2018 election that banned his most popular opponents.

In a new relationship between Caracas and Tehran, Iran recently also flew shipments of a key chemical needed to help jump start a Venezuelan oil refinery and produce gasoline.

Rouhani warns on retaliatory measures against the US

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned Saturday that the United States should not to interfere with the shipment of oil bound for Venezuela. In a statement, Rouhani said that the US had created “unacceptable conditions” in different parts of the world, but that Iran would “by no means” be the one to initiate conflict.

“If our tankers in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world face any problems caused by the Americans, they will face problems as well,” he added. 

“We hope the Americans will not make a mistake.”

US officials had announced no plans to try to intercept Iran’s tankers. However, the Trump administration has increased pressure on Maduro, recently offered a $15 million bounty for his arrest after a US court indicted him as a narcotrafficker.

'Maximum pressure' campaign

The US also recently deployed a force of ships, including Navy destroyers and other combat ships, to patrol the Caribbean on what US officials call a drug interdiction mission. The Maduro government considers it a direct threat.

Maduro holds on to power with support from Venezuela’s military and his international allies, also including Cuba, Russia, and China. The US says these nations are engaged in “malign activities and meddling” around the world.

“We will not abide by their support of the illegitimate and tyrannical regime of Nicolas Maduro,” the Trump administration said in a statement, citing its “maximum pressure” campaign against the socialist leader. “Will continue until Maduro’s hold on Venezuela is over.”

A defiant Maduro appeared on state TV days ahead of the ships’ arrivals, vowing a tough response to any US aggression against the Iranian tankers. He showed images of soldiers firing antiaircraft missiles streaking across the Caribbean.

“They want to enslave us,” Maduro said Thursday. “If you want peace, you must be prepared to defend it.”

Maduro's defence minister, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, said Venezuela’s armed forces would welcome the five Iranian tankers, escorting them with ships and planes through the nation’s maritime territory and into port.

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society research centre, said he didn’t expect the US would act against the Iranian tankers. Such an act could too easily escalate, he said, especially in the Persian Gulf where Iran could retaliate against US ships.

“(That) would needlessly undermine the narrative that Venezuela, with the world’s largest proven oil supply, has to import gasoline from Iran of all places because they have become such an international pariah,” Farnsworth said. “If they don’t, Caracas claims a great victory for the fatherland and tries to portray the US as impotent.”

Source: AP