It appears both Iran and Venezuela are ready and willing to test the outgoing Trump administration in a major gambit to skirt sanctions in a crude and fuel export scheme.
The daily American military newspaper Stars & Stripes alongside Bloomberg reports this weekend that Iran “is sending its biggest fleet yet of tankers to Venezuela in defiance of U.S. sanctions to help the isolated nation weather a crippling fuel shortage,” based on sources familiar with their movements.
“Some of the flotilla of about 10 Iranian vessels will also help export Venezuelan crude after discharging fuel, the people said, asking not to be named because the transaction is not public,” the report continues.
This appears to be the first instance Iran has sent such a large fleet, which may potentially include smaller military escorts or patrols, or possibly armed commandos on board. Things could get interesting especially when the flotilla crosses the Caribbean Sea, given the concentrated presence of US Navy warships there.
While Maduro’s Venezuela is rich in crude, it’s actually for over the past year suffered a nationwide fuel shortage, given state-run processing plans which turn crude into usable gasoline have long fallen derelict and suffered mechanical failures. Caracas has sought outside help, including from the Iranians and Russians, in not only importing the necessary mechanical parts and operational products, but in bringing in teams of technicians that can bring the facilities online.
In the meantime Iran has launched several rounds of fuel deliveries since last summer. At least one major attempt to get Iranian fuel to Venezuela saw four tankers intercepted by the US military in August. The US federal government seized the over 1.1 million barrels of petroleum and later auctioned it off.
The last batch of Iranian petrol to make it through was reportedly in October. Tankers carrying Iranian fuel typically switch off their transponders to avoid attention for their sanctions-busting activities.
Citing unnamed sources, Bloomberg is reporting today that Iran is dispatching a 10-ship flotilla of fuel to Venezuela in defiance of US sanctions and threats https://t.co/7VEhfHGJjH
— Borzou Daragahi 🖊🗒 (@borzou) December 5, 2020
But given the size of this current flotilla, it’ll be hard to miss, as Stripes reports further:
The current fleet under sail is about double the size of the one that first startled international observers in May, crossing a Caribbean Sea patrolled by the U.S. Navy, to be greeted by Maduro himself upon arrival.
“We’re watching what Iran is doing and making sure that other shippers, insurers, ship owners, ship captains realize they must stay away from that trade,” Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Iran and Venezuela, said in September.
It’s as yet unclear precisely when the large flotilla would reach the Caribbean, but the group of ships would certainly be wiser to keep a distance until at least after January 20, when Joe Biden is inaugurated and enters the White House.