Iranian fuel shipment reaches Venezuelan waters despite US scare tactics
"The ships of the sister Islamic Republic of Iran are in our exclusive economic zone," Venezuelan oil minister Tareck El Aissami wrote on Twitter after the arrival of the first tanker, named Fortune.
The fleet is carrying about 1.5 million barrels of gasoline according to media reports, and arrives amid tensions between Tehran and Washington, which has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports and Iran.
Venezuela had said its navy and air force would escort the tankers after Tehran warned of "consequences" if the US stopped the ships from reaching their destination.
According to shipping tracker MarineTraffic, as of at 9:00 pm local time (0100 GMT Sunday) Fortune was near the coast of Sucre state in northern Venezuela after passing off Trinidad and Tobago.
It plans to sail to the El Palito refinery in Puerto Cabello in northern Carabobo state, according to the state-run television station.
The rest of the Iranian ships - the Forest, Petunia, Faxon and Clavel - will arrive in the next few days, according to state television.
Relations between Caracas and Tehran have become close since former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez took power in 1999.
Iran has repeatedly expressed its support for Nicolas Maduro, his successor, who is also supported by Russia, China, Turkey and Cuba.
The United States calls Maduro a "dictator", however, and has leveled a battery of economic sanctions against his administration, including an oil embargo that came into force in April 2019.
The fuel from Iran comes at a time when the shortage of gasoline, chronic for years in some parts of the country, has worsened in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, but its production is in freefall, a collapse that experts attribute to failed policies, lack of investment and corruption.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned on 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.”
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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.
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.
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.”
Agencies contributed to this report.
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