The first of five tankers loaded with gasoline sent from Iran has reached Venezuelan waters, 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 signs of US interference as it eased through Caribbean waters toward the Venezuelan coast late on Saturday. 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.
The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, had earlier warned of retaliatory measures against the US if Washington causes problems for tankers carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela.
“If our tankers in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world face trouble caused by the Americans, they [the US] will also be in trouble,” Rouhani said in a telephone conversation with the emir of Qatar, the semi-official news agency Mehr reported.
A flotilla of five tankers carrying Iranian fuel for gasoline-starved Venezuela is approaching the Caribbean.
“Iran will never initiate a conflict,” Rouhani said. “We have always the legitimate right to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity and to serve our national interests, and we hope that the Americans will not commit an error.“
Iran is supplying about 1.53m barrels of gasoline and alkylate to Venezuela, according to both governments, sources and calculations made by TankerTrackers.com based on the vessels’ draft levels.
Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, but it must import gasoline because production has crashed in the last two decades. Critics blame corruption and mismanagement by the socialist administration amid an economic crisis that has led to huge migration by Venezuelans seeking to escape poverty, shortages of basic goods and crime.
The Iranian tankers hold what analysts estimate to be enough gasoline to supply Venezuela for two to three weeks.
The shipments have caused a diplomatic standoff between Iran and Venezuela and the US, as both nations are under US sanctions. Washington is considering measures in response, according to a senior US official who did not elaborate on any options being weighed.
The US recently beefed up its naval presence in the Caribbean for what it said was an expanded anti-drug operation. A Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said on Thursday he was not aware of any operations related to the Iranian cargoes.
Venezuela’s defence minister has said its military will escort the Iranian tankers once they reach the nation’s exclusive economic zone.
Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf last year after British forces detained an Iranian tanker off the territory of Gibraltar. Both vessels were released after a months-long standoff.
The failed raid provided a propaganda boon for Maduro, who has long claimed to be the subject of a US-sponsored assassination plot.
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