CARACAS — Venezuela’s defence minister said yesterday that planes and ships from the nation’s armed forces will escort Iranian tankers arriving with fuel to the gasoline-starved country in case of any US aggression.
Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino López said Venezuela’s navy and air force will welcome the five Iranian tankers, seeing them through the nation’s maritime territory and into port. He compared the fuel tankers to humanitarian aid that China and Russia have sent to help Venezuela combat the new coronavirus pandemic.
A force of US vessels, including Navy destroyers and other combat ships, patrol the Caribbean on what US officials call a drug interdiction mission. Venezuelan officials paint them as a threat, but US officials have not announced any plans to intercept the Iranian tankers, or threatened to try that. Both countries have been hit with US economic sanctions.
Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncada, also lashed out at the US, saying any attempt to stop the tankers would be illegal.
“Forbidding those boats from reaching their destination would thus constitute a crime against humanity,” Moncada said at a UN Security Council meeting to discuss recent turmoil in Venezuela.
The five Iranian tankers now on the high seas – the Fortune, Forest, Petunia, Faxon and Clavel – are expected to start arriving to Venezuela in the coming days. They are carrying gasoline to help alleviate days-long lines at service stations even in Caracas, which had normally been immune to shortages as the capital and seat of political power.
Earlier yesterday, Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela Ambassador Hojjatollah Soltani defended broadening trade relations between the two nations as their right to trade freely. International conventions protect the expanding ties between the two US-sanctioned nations, he said.
“This relationship between Iran and Venezuela doesn’t threaten anybody. It’s not a danger to anyone,” Soltani said in a meeting with reporters at the Iranian Embassy in Caracas.
In addition to sending the tankers, Iran has flown in shipments of a chemical needed to restart an aging Venezuelan oil refinery with the goal of producing gasoline.
While Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, its oil production has plummeted in the last two decades, which critics blame on corruption and mismanagement under socialist rule. Recent US sanctions designed to force President Nicolás Maduro from power have also hurt Venezuela’s production.
Trump’s National Security Council tweeted Monday that few financial lifelines remain for Maduro. The US is among nearly 60 nations that recognise opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
“Our maximum pressure campaign, which includes financial & economic sanctions, will continue until Maduro’s tyrannical hold ends,” the council said.
“The humanitarian & economic crisis endured by Venezuelans is the fault of 1 person – Maduro.”
For Iran’s government, the business ties with Venezuela represent a way to bring money into its cash-starved coffers and apply its own pressure on Washington.
Soltani denied claims that Iranian planes returned from Venezuela loaded with gold to pay for Iran’s support. He accused US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of spreading “fake news” to undermine the trade, which the ambassador called a “win-win” for both Venezuela and Iran.
“They can sanction whoever they want,” Soltani said. “Iran will always advance.”
Admiral Craig Faller, the top US military official in Latin America, said Monday that he was “concerned” by the reports that Iran was shipping gasoline to Venezuela. He said it fits a larger pattern of Iran trying to gain “positional advantage in our neighbourhood in a way that would counter US interests.”
“I’ve seen those same news reports that the tankers are in route,” Faller said in a webcast event. “We see the long hand of that Iranian malfeasance at work each and every day.”(AP)