CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) —
As the Trump administration increases pressure on Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro, the socialist leader has turned to Iran for help jump starting an aging refinery to prevent the South American nation with the world's largest oil reserves from running out of gasoline, The Associated Press has learned.
On Thursday, the second flight by Iranian airline Mahan Air arrived at a town in western Venezuela delivering key chemical components used for producing gasoline, two oil industry people familiar with the operation told The Associated Press. They insisted on speaking anonymously to discuss the rescue plan because they were not authorized to talk about it.
One said 14 more flights are expected in the coming days, some of them carrying Iranian technicians. The website FlightRadar24, which tracks international flights, showed the plane’s routes.
Drivers in recent weeks have started lining up at gas stations for days even in the capital of Caracas, the nation's political center that has long been immune to long waits, even as strict coronavirus quarantines have limited movement.
Iranian flights to Venezuela are rare, and those landing Wednesday and Thursday at an airport in the state of Falcon took place amid a strictly enforced flight ban by Maduro due to the pandemic. The airport is near the Paraguaná Refinery Complex, one of the largest in the world.
Both antagonistic to the U.S., the governments of Venezuela and Iran have each been hit hard by U.S. sanctions aimed at ending what the White House considers repressive regimes.
The Trump administration has recently led a “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at ousting Maduro, considering opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the nation's legitimate leader. The U.S. and a coalition of nearly 60 nations say Maduro clings to power following a 2018 election that critics consider a sham because the most popular opposition politicians were banned from running.
Venezuela's Ministry of Communications didn't immediately respond to an emailed request from AP seeking comment.
The U.S. sanctioned Mahan Air in 2011 for its work in ferrying fighters from the Revolutionary Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force, as well as Hezbollah, into Syria to support embattled President Bashar Assad.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Mahan Air continued to fly passenger trips into China while other international carriers stopped, according to the State Department and FlightRadar24. Experts believe this offers Iran’s Shiite theocracy and the Guard hard currency amid the U.S. sanctions campaign targeting the country’s vital oil industry. Iran and Mahan Air have denied the flights took place.
Iran itself does not produce enough of the catalysts locally for its own demand, said Mohammad Rezaei, director for research and technology of Iran’s National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Co. A January report by the Oil Ministry’s SHANA news agency quoted him as saying local catalyst production couldn’t cover for Iran’s nine active domestic refineries.
Iran likely receives the rest of its catalysts from China, which has maintained a business relationship with Tehran despite American sanctions.
Both Mahan and Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the flights to Venezuela.