The most public show of deepening relations: five oil tanks stealing across the Atlantic Ocean, carrying what analysts have estimated Iran’s 60 million gallons of gasoline, which they say was purchased with Venezuelan gold, a allegations denied by Iran. The first of the ships was set to arrive in Venezuelan waters on Saturday night to alleviate the fuel shortages, fearing that sick people would not be able to go to hospitals and work rot in the fields.
“You have two pariah states that find that they can replace the things they need for the things they have,”; said Elliott Abrams, special U.S. representative in Venezuela.
US sanctions on Iran target anyone buying or facilitating the purchase of petroleum products from that country, but Venezuela’s oil company is under similar sanctions. The Trump administration is also urging the Monroe Doctrine – the 19th-century policy to be refused outside intervention in the Western Hemisphere – to move against foreign entities doing business with Maduro.
Iran warned against any attempt by the United States to board or block ships, and Venezuela promised to build warships to take over the convoy through its territorial waters.
Washington protested by the sound of an alarm over Iran’s continued involvement in Venezuela. U.S. officials said they were monitoring the convoy but were persuaded by direct contact.
Travel is trying to see how far the Trump administration is willing to go to close a sovereign relationship between the two countries it considers enemies.
“My sense is that Iranians want to use their tankers and play a chicken coop” with the United States, said Evan Ellis, a professor of Latin American studies in the U.S. Army War College.
For Iran, exporting oil to allies has grown more difficult. In August, authorities in Gibraltar, supported by British forces, arrested an Iranian supplyman carrying 2.1 million barrels of light crude. Officials say they suspect it is heading to the Syrian port of Baniyas, which is in violation of sanctions in the European Union.
Any US interdiction of the convoy that sailed today across the Atlantic has been challenged by Iranians and Venezuelans. But opposition to the U.S. supported by the United States is providing some potential ammunition to claims that Iran can transport more fuel.
Opposition leaders have warned that Tehran could provide materials for what they described as a covert operation to help Maduro’s intelligence apparatus build a listening post in northern Venezuela to prompt aerial and maritime communications.
“For Iran, an enemy of the United States, that means they almost touch the American tail,” said Iván Simonovis, security manager for Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader whom the United States has identified as the right leader of the country.
Maduro’s communications minister dismissed the claims as “absurd.”
“This is a smokescreen by Simonovis,” Jorge Rodríguez wrote in a text to The Washington Post. “Venezuela and Iran have had 20 years of commercial relations and cooperation.”
The closest to the tanks, Fortune, was on course to enter Venezuelan waters Saturday night. The convoy has been heading to the largest U.S. military presence in the Caribbean for at least a decade. The Pentagon dispatched destroyers, littoral battle ships, Poseidon planes and Air Force aircraft to the region as part of an operation to shut down drug-trafficking routes off the coast of Venezuela.
U.S. officials dismiss Iran’s suggestion that those forces will deal with the convoy. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters Thursday that he was not aware of plans to launch a military operation against Iran’s tanks.
But an old Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, said the administration “would not retain” Iran’s support for Maduro.
“The president made it clear that the United States would not allow the continued uprising of supporters of an illegal regime,” the official said. The administration considers Maduro usurper, saying he stole the presidential election in 2018; he was arraigned by the Justice Department in March on narcoterrorism charges. The United States is one of about 60 countries that recognize Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s head of law.
“Importing Iran’s fuel is an act of desperation by Maduro’s corrupt and illegal regime,” tweeted President Trump’s National Security Council. “It will not stop Venezuela’s chronic fuel shortages or alleviate the suffering that Maduro suffered from a once prosperous people of his country.”
Analysts say the administration is more likely to use more economic sanctions than force to thwart Iranian-Venezuelan trade. As Trump toppled hawkish positions in Iran – pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal, imposing sanctions on sanctions and allowing the January assassination of military commander Qasem Soleimani – he has at times expressed a desire to avoid the main conflict.
While Iran’s tanks were heading west earlier this month, the State and Treasury Departments and the U.S. The Coast Guard has released a global advisory on the maritime industry, warning that countries including Iran could engage in “fraudulent shipping practices” to avoid sanctions.
Craig Faller, U.S. commander Southern Command, it said in the past This week he believes Iran’s goal is “to gain a positional advantage in our neighborhood in a way that opposes the interests of the United States.”
“We saw an uproar in Iran’s state-sponsored activity and relations with Venezuela that included the Quds Force” – an elite Iranian military unit – “and it included other elements of support to the illegal regimes of the Maduro regime, “he said during a video briefing on Monday with Florida International University.
Venezuela’s strategic relationship with Iran dates back almost two decades, when President Hugo Chávez, the state’s founder of this socialist state, embarked on an economic and financial deal with a fellow American thorn – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the president of Iran.
Many of these deals are propaganda on paper that is not actually material. But in both countries now under U.S. sanctions and facing painful recession amid the coronavirus pandemic and falling oil prices, they are moving to strengthen mutually beneficial bonds .
Maduro is struggling to keep the lights on, literally, in a country plagued by frequent and widespread blackouts, on top of the scarcity of gas, food, water and medical supplies. In recent months, his most critical problem has been fuel shortage.
Venezuela, an OPEC state, boasts the world’s largest oil reserves. But years of mismanagement and corruption – and, more recently, U.S. sanctions on all of the most important oil sectors – have combined to leave the petroleum industry tatters and its gas refineries in frustration. Traditional supporters of Maduro, Russia and China, seem reluctant to bail him out. Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft shut down its operations in Venezuela in March and backed off oil deals with Maduro that included sending Venezuela a much-needed gas.
Iran, which is also under severe sanctions on the United States, will lose much less.
Last month, aviation monitoring companies registered more than a dozen special flights to Venezuela by Mahan Air, which the United States has sanctioned for allegedly carrying weapons and Iranian military operatives abroad , including in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned on Saturday that the United States could face unspecified “chaos” if the tanks could not reach their destination, Mehr news agency reported.
Russ Dallen, a partner at Caracas Capital Markets, a Florida-based company that monitors Venezuela’s energy sector, said the information collected by the firm indicated that flights were carrying chemicals and equipment to help Venezuela. to restore moribund domestic gas refineries. Maduro’s government, he said, appears to be paying for those parts – as well as Iranian fuel now in transit – with gold from the Central Bank.
“We monitor the Central Bank’s reserves every month,” Dallen said. “They suddenly dropped from April to May by $ 700 million.”
Iranian ambassador to Venezuela, Hojjatollah Soltani, has denied any gold-for-gas deal with Maduro. He said this last week that both countries have the right to engage in regular bilateral trade.
“This relationship between Iran and Venezuela does not threaten anyone,” Soltani told reporters Wednesday at the Iran Embassy in Caracas. “It’s not a danger to anyone.”
Faiola from Miami, Ryan from Washington and Cunningham from Istanbul reported. Mariana Zuñiga and Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas and Carol Morello and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.