US-Iran hostility crosses the Atlantic
Iran has begun shipping oil to sanction-hit Venezuela, sending five tankers towards the crisis-hit South American country in defiance of US warnings.
The first of five Iranian vessels, escorted by the Venezuelan navy with fighter jets overhead, pulled up to the country’s El Palito refinery late Sunday amid celebratory statements from the country’s leaders.
“We keep moving forward and winning,” Venezuela’s Minister of Energy Tareck El Aissami wrote on Twitter.
Despite having some of the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela has been unable to produce enough fuel for its 29 million people due to years of mismanagement that have caused its major refineries to close. Now even the capital Caracas is hit by gas shortages, making its leaders desperate for foreign imports.
Venezuela’s embattled President Nicholas Maduro praised Iran’s leaders “from the bottom of my heart” and referenced their shared hostility to the US.
We are “two rebel nations, two revolutionary nations that will never kneel down before US imperialism,” Maduro said. “Venezuela has friends in this world, and brave friends at that.”
Both Iran and Venezuela are under severe US sanctions and Washington previously said it was weighing a response to potential oil shipments between the two.
However Iran’s first two tankers made their way to Venezuelan waters “perfectly normally,” according to local media, and it remains unclear if the US will take further action.
The US State Department criticised Venezuela’s dealings with Iran as a last-resort ploy by Maduro in order to avoid serious reforms.
"This is a sad reminder of Maduro's hopeless mismanagement," US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Sunday. "Venezuelans need free and fair presidential elections leading to democracy and economic recovery, not Maduro's expensive deals with another pariah state."
Russ Dallen, head of the Miami-based investment firm Caracas Capital Markets, agreed that Venezuela’s reliance on Iranian imports was a sign of the regime’s desperation.
“Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, is now reduced to importing millions of gallons of gasoline from another failed pariah state halfway around the world,” Dallen said.
Venezuela has been hard-hit by economic sanctions as Maduro hangs on to power after a disputed 2018 presidential election. The US has called on him to step down and offered a $15 million reward for his arrest on drug smuggling charges.
The Latin American country’s recent oil shipment is not the first time its relationship with the Islamic Republic has come under scrutiny.
For years Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese proxy that the US and other Western countries have declared a terrorist group, has allegedly laundered money and funded foreign militants through drug operations in Venezuela.
There is evidence that Hezbollah operations in Venezuela have gone on with the blessing of Maduro administration officials, who have reportedly held meetings with the militant group.
Exiled former Venezuelan intelligence chief General Manuel Figuera told the Washington Post last year that there is “intelligence that Hezbollah had operations in Caracas, Maracay, and Nueva Esparta, apparently geared toward illicit business activity to help fund operations in the Middle East.”
Now more than ever Iran is in need of such connections to help it weather a severe economic crisis of its own.
But while Iran has publicly defied the US’s “maximum pressure” campaign against it, there are signs the country's economic downturn -- exacerbated by US sanctions, the decline in oil revenue and the coronavirus pandemic -- is causing it to seek some form of rapprochement with Washington.
Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has even expressed concern that the country is not able to sell oil to longtime partner Turkey as a natural gas pipeline that carries around 10 billion cubic meters of Iranian gas to Turkey annually has not been repaired.
“Because of the explosion our gas exports to this country have been cut off. Although it takes not more than a few days to repair the pipeline, the Turkish side has not yet repaired it,” Zanganeh said.