Last month, Iran sternly warned the US to stay clear of its oil tankers as they set off for the Caribbean to deliver about 1.5 million barrels of gasoline to Venezuela which is under a virtual American economic siege.
On Saturday, an Iranian news agency said Iran’s naval forces had prepared to target US commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf in case American forces interfered with Venezuela-bound Iranian oil tankers.
“According to reports received by Noor News, after increasing military threats against Iranian vessels headed for Venezuela, an order was issued to Iran’s armed forces to identify and track several US merchant vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman,” the agency said on its website.
“Options for reciprocal action were immediately identified and monitored for possible operations,” Noor News added.
Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)’s Aerospace Force Space Division has said the homegrown Noor satellite that was launched into space last month was used to track the oil tankers.
“In the Atlantic Ocean, where access to ships is normally more difficult, monitoring the position of the oil tankers and the situation in their surroundings was put on the agenda of the Noor satellite, and was accomplished,” Brigadier General Ali Jafarabadi said.
On the diplomatic front, Iran complained to the United Nations and summoned the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who represents US interests in the Islamic Republic, over possible measures Washington could take against the Iranian tankers.
According to many observers, Iran’s determination forced a climbdown in threatened “measures” by the US which had reportedly dispatched warships and a patrol aircraft to the Atlantic Ocean to possibly confront the Iranian vessels.
Bloomberg said this month the US government has decided to avoid a military confrontation and instead prepared sanctions on as many as 50 oil and fuel tankers as part of an effort to cut off trade between Iran and Venezuela.
“The sanctions would be imposed through the Treasury Department and are intended to avoid a US military confrontation with the countries,” the leading financial news provider said, citing a person familiar with the matter.
However, both Venezuela and Iran are more than willing to cooperate in defiance of the US threats. According to the Washington Post, Venezuela and Iran have “just proved” that the Trump administration’s sanctions are failing.
“By showing that they were able to trade to mutual benefit”, Iran and Venezuela “not only successfully circumvented US sanctions; they also scored public relations points in the process,” the paper wrote last month.
Thanks to Iran’s bold move, the chink in the chain of the draconian sanctions is becoming visible.
On Monday, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said his country would sell gasoline to Venezuela if asked to do so. Lopez Obrador added he has not received such a request from the Venezuelan government.
Officials at Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s office have said Caracas plans to import more gasoline and additives from Iran.
President Maduro himself has said he would visit Iran once health conditions resulting from the new coronavirus outbreak permit in order to thank the Iranian government and sign a “high-level bilateral agreement strengthening energy, financial and military ties”.
On Monday, Reuters quoted unnamed sources as saying that Iran could send two to three cargoes a month in regular gasoline sales to Venezuela.
“Tehran plans to keep up the shipments, according to five trading and industry sources close to the Oil Ministry,” the news agency reported.
After importing gasoline for decades, Iran became self-sufficient in the fuel last year when the third phase of its newly-constructed 350,000 barrels per day (bpd) Persian Gulf Star refinery in the port of Bandar Abbas came online.
The coronavirus pandemic has cut demand for gasoline, building up a glut which has been weighing on Iran’s storage capacity.
Venezuela’s thirst for gasoline, marked by hours-long lines at gas stations, has made the country an ideal new destination to unload part of Iran’s oversupply burden.
Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves. Its refineries also can produce more than 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) of fuel, but they are working at less than 20% of their capacity mainly due to power outages and lack of spare parts amid the US sanctions.
Oil industry data provider TankerTrackers.com says an Iranian-flagged cargo ship is currently making its way toward Venezuela to help the fuel-starved country restart its mostly idled 1.3 million bpd refining network.
Refinitiv Eikon data showed the vessel, the Golsan, was navigating west across the Atlantic Ocean after departing Bandar Abbas – the same port where Iran’s gasoline cargoes came from – in May, Reuters reported.