Iranian fuel starts arriving in Venezuelan waters despite U.S. warning

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani listens at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

CARACAS (Reuters) – The first of five Iranian tankers carrying fuel for gasoline-starved Venezuela entered the South American country’s exclusive economic zone on Saturday, despite a U.S. official’s warning that Washington was considering a response to the shipment.

The tanker – named Fortune – reached the country’s waters at around 7:40 p.m. local time (1140 GMT) after passing north of the neighboring dual-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, according to vessel tracking data from Refinitiv Eikon.

Venezuelan state television showed images of a navy ship and aircraft preparing to meet it. The nation’s defense minister had pledged that the military would escort the tankers once they reached Venezuela’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) due to what authorities described as threats from the United States.

“We welcome the boats from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will soon arrive at our fatherland’s ports,” Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s economy vice president and recently named oil minister, wrote on Twitter earlier on Saturday.

The tanker flotilla is carrying a total of 1.53 million barrels of gasoline and alkylate to Venezuela, according to both governments, sources and calculations by TankerTrackers.com.

The shipments – desperately needed as gasoline is increasingly scarce in Venezuela due to a near complete breakdown of the OPEC nation’s 1.3 million barrel-per-day refining network – have caused a diplomatic standoff between the United States and Iran and Venezuela as both countries are under U.S. sanctions.

Washington is considering measures in response, according to a senior U.S. official, who did not elaborate on any options.

The United States recently beefed up its naval presence in the Caribbean for what it said was an expanded antidrug operation. A Pentagon spokesman said on Thursday he was not aware of any operations related to the Iranian cargoes.

The shipment has drawn condemnation from Venezuela’s opposition, who are concerned about growing ties between Iran and socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who has overseen a six-year economic crisis. The shipments are bringing enough fuel for just a month of consumption at current rates in the nation, once a prominent fuel exporter.

“[The ruling party] is trying to turn an embarrassment into an epic victory,” said Oscar Ronderos, a lawmaker who serves on the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s energy commission.

Earlier on Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned of retaliatory measures against the United States if Washington caused problems for tankers carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela, the semi-official news agency Mehr reported.

“If our tankers in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world face trouble caused by the Americans, they (the U.S.) will also be in trouble,” Rouhani said in a telephone conversation with Qatar’s Emir, Mehr reported.

It was not the first time the two OPEC nations have helped each other in the face of U.S. sanctions. In 2010-2011, state-run oil company PDVSA sent fuel to Iran, which was under sanctions aimed at stifling its nuclear weapons program.

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