CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – The first of five tankers loaded with gasoline sent from Iran reached Venezuelan waters late Saturday, expected to temporarily ease the South American nationâ€™s fuel crunch while defying Trump administration sanctions targeting the two U.S. foes.
The oil tanker Fortune encountered no immediate signs of U.S. interference as it eased through Caribbean waters toward the Venezuelan coast and Venezuelan officials celebrated the arrival.
â€œIran and Venezuela have always supported each other in times of difficulty,â€ Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted. â€œToday, the first ship with gasoline arrives for our people.â€
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.
Venezuela sits atop the worldâ€™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.
Deep gasoline shortages have plagued Venezuela for years, though the problem had until recently largely spared the capital of Caracas, the largest population center and political seat.
Drivers must wait for days in lines that snake through neighborhood to fill up with government-subsidized gasoline that costs less than a penny for a tank. Wealthier drivers with U.S. dollars turn to the black market, where gas costs up to $12 a gallon. Thatâ€™s a small fortune in Venezuela, where the monthly minimum wage equals less than $5.
The U.S. accuses Iran and other nations of propping up Venezuelan President NicolÃ¡s Maduro. Itâ€™s among nearly 60 nations that back opposition leader Juan GuaidÃ³ 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.
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 U.S. had created â€œunacceptable conditionsâ€ in different parts of the world, but that Iran would â€œby no meansâ€ be the one to initiate conflict.
â€œIf our tankers in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world face any problems caused by the Americans, they will face problems as well,â€ he added. â€œWe hope the Americans will not make a mistake.â€
U.S. officials had announced no plans to try to intercept Iranâ€™s tankers. However, the Trump administration has increased pressure on Maduro, recently offered a $15 million bounty for his arrest after a U.S. court indicted him as a narcotrafficker.
The U.S. also recently deployed a force of ships, including Navy destroyers and other combat ships, to patrol the Caribbean on what U.S. officials call a drug interdiction mission. The Maduro government considers it a direct threat.
Maduro holds on to power with support from Venezuelaâ€™s military and his international allies, also including Cuba, Russia, and China. The U.S. says these nations are engaged in â€œmalign activities and meddlingâ€ around the world.
â€œWe will not abide by their support of the illegitimate and tyrannical regime of NicolÃ¡s Maduro,â€ the Trump administration said in a statement, citing its â€œmaximum pressureâ€ campaign against the socialist leader. â€œWill continue until Maduroâ€™s hold on Venezuela is over.â€
A defiant Maduro appeared on state TV days ahead of the shipsâ€™ arrivals, vowing a tough response to any U.S. aggression against the Iranian tankers. He showed images of soldiers firing antiaircraft missiles streaking across the Caribbean.
â€œThey want to enslave us,â€ Maduro said Thursday. â€œIf you want peace, you must be prepared to defend it.â€
Maduro’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino LÃ³pez, said Venezuelaâ€™s armed forces would welcome the five Iranian tankers, escorting them with ships and planes through the nationâ€™s maritime territory and into port.
Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society research center, said he didnâ€™t expect the U.S. 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 U.S. ships.
â€œ(That) would needlessly undermine the narrative that Venezuela, with the worldâ€™s largest proven oil supply, has to import gasoline from Iran of all places because they have become such an international pariah,â€ Farnsworth said. â€œIf they donâ€™t, Caracas claims a great victory for the fatherland and tries to portray the U.S. as impotent.â€
Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP