CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s defense minister said Wednesday 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 U.S. aggression.
Defense 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 U.S. vessels, including Navy destroyers and other combat ships, patrol the Caribbean on what U.S. officials call a drug interdiction mission. Venezuelan officials paint them as a threat, but U.S. officials have not announced any plans to intercept the Iranian tankers, or threatened to try that. Both countries have been hit with U.S. economic sanctions.
Five Iranian tankers likely carrying at least $45.5 million worth of gasoline and similar products are now sailing to Venezuela, part of a wider deal between the two U.S.-sanctioned nations amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington.
Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncada, also lashed out at the U.S., 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 U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss recent turmoil in Venezuela.
The five Iranian tankers now on the high seas 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 Wednesday, Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela defended broadening trade relations between the two nations, which includes the five tankers, as their right to trade freely. International conventions protect the expanding ties between the two U.S.-sanctioned nations, Ambassador Hojjatollah Soltani 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.
The U.S. Navy warned Tuesday it will take "lawful defensive measures" against vessels in the Mideast that come within 100 meters (yards) of its warships, offering specific guidelines after a recent close encounter with Iranian vessels in the Persian Gulf.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. is among nearly 60 nations that recognize 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.”
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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 U.S. 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.”
Adm. Craig Faller, the top U.S. military official in Latin America, said Monday that he was “concerned” by the news reports that Iran was shipping gasoline to Venezuela. He said it fits a larger pattern of Iran trying to gain “positional advantage in our neighborhood in a way that would counter U.S. 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.”
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed to this report.