Fuel shipments to Venezuela are being celebrated in some Iranian circles as a blow to the United States, which has imposed heavy sanctions on Tehran and Caracas targeting both regimes.
The first of the gasoline shipments arrived in Iranian tankers earlier this week in a public show of defiance against Washington, which has said it is weighing “options” for a response.
Three more Iran-flagged tankers are expected to reach Venezuelan waters in the coming days.
The unhampered arrival of the shipments was hailed by Iran’s ambassador to Caracas, Hojatollah Soltani, as “a great and historic day” for the two countries, whose leaders share an adversary in Washington that has levied heavy sanctions against them.
The United States withdrew two years ago from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and has reimposed tough economic sanctions "until Iran changes its behavior."
Washington and 60 or so other countries have recognized a rival of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro as that country's rightful president, and U.S. officials have slapped sanctions on dozens of Venezuelan officials and the petroleum, food, banking, and other major industries.
Reports suggest Iran will be paid about 9 tons of gold, worth $500 million, for what is believed to be 1.5 million barrels of gasoline as well as key chemicals, although Soltani has insisted Tehran has “fully received payments” for the gasoline.
“Two Iranian tankers reached Venezuela without facing any assault from any country,” Soltani was quoted by Iranian media as saying on May 27, while adding that Iran had not violated international law.
“If the U.S. creates a crisis, the safety of international maritime security will be undermined,” he added, echoing comments by Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who said over the weekend that Tehran was not seeking a conflict but has the right to defend its interests.
Analysts say Tehran is attempting to project power at a time of intense U.S. pressure and with the Middle East’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak adding to its economic misery.
“Tehran is signaling that despite Washington’s campaign of 'maximum pressure,' it will not only continue to help its allies but it also has the ability to do so," Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London, told RFE/RL.
“Moreover, brazenly sailing into waters so close to the U.S. is intentionally provocative," Vakil added.
The ultra-hard-line Iranian daily Kayhan called it "humiliation for America in the Caribbean" in a headline earlier this week after the first two tankers reached Venezuela. It quoted Tehran-based analyst and academic Foad Izadi as saying that Iran’s move marked a defeat for the United States.
“For several weeks now, the Americans have been threatening Iran in various ways.... But with the successful arrival of Iranian tankers, the famous saying by [Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini that ‘America can’t do a damn thing’ took on real meaning,” Izadi said.
He argued that other countries will take note of the "success" of Tehran’s policy vis-à-vis the United States, leading to the crumbling of U.S. sanctions.
“Sanctioned countries have started to fight back against bullying on the international scene," the reformist daily Etemad said, suggesting that Iranian tankers were now openly sailing “a few steps” off U.S. shores.
Ahmad Sobhani, a former Iranian ambassador to Caracas, told the conservative Farhikhtegan daily that Tehran’s “deterrent power” was the main factor behind the successful delivery of fuel to Venezuela.
He cited Iran’s missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S.'s assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) senior commander Qasem Soleimani as proof of his country’s “ability and courage” and said the United States sees no point in initiating a conflict.
Former U.S. diplomat Mark Fitzpatrick said he believes Washington has limited options for responding to the Iranian shipments, which mark a deepening of ties between two U.S. enemies that flourished under Iranian ex-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
Tehran, which has lost traditional oil clients in Asia and Europe due to U.S. sanctions, is hungry for cash, while Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, is facing severe fuel shortages due to years of mismanagement and corruption, in addition to sanctions.
“Military interdiction would be a massive overreaction to what is a minor evasion of sanctions provisions,” Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow at the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told RFE/RL.
“The U.S. can put the tanker captains on the Treasury blacklist, but to no avail; they would see it as a badge of honor. Nor would they fall for a bribery offer, as the U.S. attempted in the case of Iran’s Adrian Darya 1 oil tanker, after it was released last summer by the British territory of Gibraltar,” he said, in reference to an Iran-flagged supertanker that was briefly held over an apparent attempt to deliver oil to Syria despite "smart sanctions" aimed at Bashar al-Assad's government in Damascus.
“So the Trump administration's best move is not to say much about it," Fitzpatrick added.
Others suggested that the United States could announce more sanctions.
Speaking on May 27, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Schenker, said Washington was “not pleased” with the shipments, adding that the United States was looking at its options.
“These are two pariah states that have horrific human rights abuses,” Schenker said during an online event organized by the Beirut Institute. “One could imagine them sending other things -- I mean weapons, who knows?”
On April 30, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of “Iran’s destabilizing role” in Venezuela, pointing to flights by the sanctioned private Iranian airline Mahan Air, which he said delivered cargo of “unknown support” to Maduro’s government.
The U.S. special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, alleged that Tehran has been flying components to help Venezuela’s oil industry.
"Those planes that are coming in from Iran that are bringing things for the oil industry are returning with the payments for those things: gold,” Abrams said at the Washington-based Hudson institute.
Reuters quoted Venezuela's central bank governor as saying on May 27 that it had reached a deal with the UN Development Program to set aside part of the gold in Bank of England accounts belonging to Maduro's government toward the purchase of food and medicine during the coronavirus pandemic. Britain also doesn't recognize the legitimacy of Maduro's administration.