International Business Times | : Five Iranian tankers filled with gasoline and other needed products are headed to Venezuela, signifying a new partnership between two countries both under heavy sanctions by the United States. How the U.S. will respond is a question in need of an answer. The shipments, if completed, would benefit both Venezuela, who needs gasoline and goods, and Iran, which is in need of funding for its cash-starved Shiite theocracy.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Iran since 1979 after a group of radical students seized the American Embassy and took Americans hostages. This was a response to the exiled Shah of Iran being allowed to enter the U.S. for medical treatment. Later sanctions involved Iran’s invasion of Iraq in the 1980s and links to terrorist activities.
The American sanctions against Venezuela stem from Washington’s refusal to recognize socialist Nicolas Maduro and as the legitimate president. Instead, the U.S. recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate interim president. Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest crude oil reserves, but its refineries have been crippled by the sanctions and have all but shut down.
Maduro has been using his country’s gold reserves to pay for food, and now Iranian gas, and this has added to the economic and political chaos that grips Latin America’s one-time largest oil producer.
Captain Ranjith Raja is an analyst who tracks oil shipments by the sea at the firm Refinitiv, a global provider of financial market data. He told the Associated Press, “This is like a new one for everyone. We haven’t seen anything like this before,” referring to the shipments.
According to Raja, the ships were apparently loaded from the Persian Gulf Star Refinery near Bandar Abbas, Iran, which produces gasoline. The ships then traveled around the Arabian Peninsula, through the Suez Canal, and into the Mediterranean Sea.
This information was collected from the ship’s Automatic Identification System, or AIS, which acts as a tracking beacon.
Raja to the AP that Refinitiv had no data on any Iranian petrol shipment ever going to South America before and that Venezuela would have nothing to lose from accepting the shipments.
On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury, State Department, and Coast Guard issued an advisory, warning the maritime industry of illegal shipping and tactics to avoid the sanctions by countries including Iran. A reward of up to $15 million is already being offered for information that could disrupt Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s finances.
The U.S also warned anyone who “knowingly engaged in a significant transaction for the purchase, acquisition, sale, transport or marketing of petroleum” would face U.S. sanctions.
A confrontation would likely take place first in the Caribbean as the tankers approach their destination. According to Iran’s Fars News, four U.S. Navy warships are in the Caribbean awaiting a “possible confrontation with Iran’s tankers”.
Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Zarif penned a letter to United Nations chief Antonio Guterres warning against “America’s movements in deploying its navy to the Caribbean in order to intervene and create disruption in [the] transfer of Iran’s fuel to Venezuela, calling such actions “illegal and a form of piracy.”
As of Thursday (May 14), any moves by the U.S were still under consideration, according to a senior official in President Donald Trump’s administration who discussed the matter with Reuters news agency.