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Iranian oil tankers reach Venezuela in defiance of US

Borzou Daragahi
Iranian oil vessel 'Fortune' on the coast of Puerto Cabello, Carabobo state, Venezuela: EPA

Shipments of Iranian petrochemical products have arrived in Venezuela despite American harrumphing against a deal that is part of a broader blossoming of relations between the Middle East and Latin American countries.

The arrival of the fuel shipments represents one in a long series of geopolitical flops for the Trump administration and the close-knit band of Washington hawks who dominate White House Middle East and Latin America scheming.

Campaigns of “maximum pressure” directed against Tehran and Caracas were meant to curtail the influence of the two regimes and potentially bring about their downfall. Instead the two countries are openly collaborating with each other and publicly celebrating their defiance of US aims and manoeuvres.

“We are not alone,” Capt. Luis Somosa Ladea, the commander of the Venezuelan navy patrol ship Yekuana, which was escorting the convoy of tankers, told state television. “We will do what is necessary to guarantee the sovereignty of Venezuela and tranquillity of the Venezuelan people with the supply of petrol.”

For days, current and former US officials had been whispering menacing threats to Washington to media outlets, or making ominous predictions that the shipments could be interdicted.

“In defiance of US maximum pressure campaigns, Iran is bailing out Venezuela,” former National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote on Twitter. “Iran’s attempt to oppose US priorities must be met with resolve.”

But experts say no US ship moved towards the tankers as they made their way across two hemispheres, and they arrived in Venezuelan waters without slowing or diverting from their path. Supporters of regimes in both Venezuela and Iran hailed the shipments as a victory.

This deal is not just about the tankers. There has been very high-level cooperation between the office of the Supreme Leader and military guys.

Tehran-based interlocutor who speaks regularly to Latin American officials

“Our target is the White House,” an Iran regime backer wrote on social media. “Our path goes through Venezuela.”

The shipments include 1.53 million barrels of gasoline and alkylate gasoline aboard five Handysize and Handymax oil and chemical tankers, according to TankerTrackers.com, a research firm which monitors ship movements. The petroleum products are meant to expand Venezuela’s ability to refine its crude oil into gasoline.

“Venezuela needs gasoline as the country currently has no or little functioning refining capacity and has therefore turned to Iran to try and restore some of it so they don’t have to continue importing refined products,” Samir Madani, cofounder of TankerTrackers.com, told The Independent.

A banner reads “there is no gasoline” outside a closed fuel station in Caracas, Venezuela (AP)

In exchange for the fuel, Iran received about $500 million worth of gold flown by the airline Mahan Air in late April, in a deal that bypasses US sanctions on both countries.

Mahan, which is under US sanctions for its role in supplying weapons and fighters to the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, has flown more than 10 flights between Iran and Venezuela since January, ferrying businesspeople, officials, technicians and supplies as both countries face off against the US and popular uprisings.

Those flights have accelerated in recent weeks as Venezuela seeks to calm popular demands by upgrading its refinery capacity.

Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela has announced plans to increase trade and tourism through the reestablishment of regularly scheduled commercial flights which were suspended a decade ago.

But the most important connections between the two countries fall outside normal diplomatic channels, with ties being forged between officials in the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and generals loyal to Venezuelan ruler Nicolas Maduro. Increasingly powerful military-financial elites are driving the relationship in both countries.

US Admiral Craig Faller, commander of US Southern Command, last month alleged that “an uptick in Iranian activities” in Venezuela including by the Revolutionary Guard’s elite overseas clandestine Quds Force.

I would expect Iran to be looking at Venezuela and Latin America more broadly as a space in which it can operate without the level of scrutiny or detection it would face in North America or Europe

Heather Heldman, Luminae Group

But though hailed as successes on the tightly controlled television outlets of both authoritarian regimes, the shipments do also suggest failures by Iran and Venezuela, regimes increasingly dominated by corrupt military elites bound together by little more than antipathy towards Washington.

“They’re both regimes that are struggling to hold onto power and they’re both regimes that have for various reasons positioned themselves as adversaries of the United States,” said Ms Heldman.

Iran, pressed into a corner by US sanctions, is forced to broker surreptitious deals with other isolated countries halfway across the globe rather than sell its oil, petroleum products and other exports to long-standing trading partners in nearby Europe and Asia.

Venezuela, holding the world’s largest oil reserves, is importing refined products from the Persian Gulf in what could be seen as a disastrous turn for a country suffering an economic meltdown as a result of US sanctions and years of mismanagement. Some feared backroom deals with Iran could open the country to more US pressure.

“As if it were not enough that [Venezuela has] a complex humanitarian emergency, as if it were not enough that we are in the middle of a Covid-19 pandemic and that basic services are collapsed, now we also have to deal with Islamic terrorism, which is the main export product of Iran,” Armando Armas, a Venezuela opposition figure, was quoted as saying by the news website La Patilla.

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