Tanker Fleet Nears Venezuela Amid US Tensions

A Spanish Civil Guard boat sails past Iranian oil tanker
(photo credit: JON NAZCA/ REUTERS)

Five Iranian tankers filled with gasoline were nearing Venezuela Saturday morning. The Fortune, the lead tanker, is estimated to arrive on Sunday, while four others are strung out across the Atlantic Ocean. It is unclear if the US will try to interdict the tankers, but the movement of the gasoline runs counter to sanctions on Iran and is a flagrant red flag in the face of Washington which denounces the current Nicolas Maduro leadership of Venezuela, and supports his opponent.

Venezuela and Iran are to key issues for the US administration. Iran was supposed to see its oil exports reduced to near zero due to US sanctions that were put in place after the Trump administration walked away from the Iran deal. In May 2019 tensions increased between the US and Iran and Tehran has mined tankers in the Gulf of Oman, attacked Saudi Arabia and killed US and Coalition forces in Iraq using proxies. In Venezuela he US supports Juan Guaido who declared himself president in January 2019 after disputed election results. He was formerly the speaker of parliament. In early May two US citizens were detained in Venezuela as part of an ill-conceived coup plot that was hatched by Venezuelan dissidents.

Iran’s tankers were pumped full of gasoline more than a month ago and have been making their slow journey toward Venezuela for weeks. They exited Gibraltar’s straits in early May and have been tracked by groups such as Tanker Trackers that monitor shipping. The first tanker has at least 1.5 million barrels of gasoline. Both Iran and Venezuela are oil-rich countries but Venezuela has destroyed its oil and gas industry, which means oddly that it is importing gas from Iran. Venezuela’s regime is an ally of Iran, Turkey and Russia. Iran has been taking gold out of Venezuela as payment for the gas. Turkey also took gold from Venezuela last year.

ImageSat International using tracking algorithms post satellite images of the tankers on May 22. It shows the Forest tanker making is way toward Caracas. The ISI assessment notes that if the tankers keep the same sailing speed the Fortune will enter Venezuela’s exclusive economic zone on May 23, Saturday. The Forest and Petunia will arrive soon after. The tankers must first navigate some beautiful Caribbean islands before coming to port in Venezuela. Two other tankers, the Faxon and Clavel may arrive next week.

The US has naval ships somewhere in the Caribbean that could interdict the ships but so far it is unclear if there will be any standoff. The US appeared to downplay rumors that there would be a conflagration. Iran has warned the US that any interference will result in retaliation. This appears to mean Iran will target ships in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s navy recently shot a missile at one of its own ships, killing its own naval members, as part of a drill to show off its capabilities. Iran also downed a Ukrainian passenger jet during tensions with the US in January after Iran fired ballistic missiles at a US base. The US killed Iran’s IRGC Quds Force general Qasem Soleimani in January. Iran has shown that its missiles are effective against unsuspecting targets and that its fast boats can harass US ships. Trump warned in April Iran that he would sink Iran’s IRGC fast boats. US officers in the past have assessed that Iran’s navy could be destroyed in a day of combat with the US. It is not a serious military challenge. But it can threaten ships and has waylaid tankers in the past, stopping a British ship last year after the UK stopped an Iranian ship destined for Syria. Iran knows how to retaliate using asymmetric methods and it will use them if its ships are stopped off Caracas.