- Iranian tankers carrying gasoline are a few days from Venezuela, which is struggling with crippling gasoline shortages.
- The US has sanctioned both countries, and the tankers’ looming arrival could set up another confrontation with Iran just a few months after exchanging fire in Iraq.
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A few months after coming to blows in Iraq, the US and Iran face a possible confrontation in the Western Hemisphere, where several tankers carrying gasoline are heading from Iran to Venezuela.
As of Tuesday, four of the tankers had sailed out of the Mediterranean, with the fifth close behind. The first ship, the Iranian-flagged Fortune, is set to arrive early next week, according to Argus Media, citing ship-tracking services.
The shipments would ease a crippling gasoline shortage in Venezuela, where years of neglect and mismanagement have undercut refining capacity. It’d also draw down the glut of fuel in Iran caused by collapsing oil demand.
US officials have said Iran is receiving Venezuelan gold in exchange for the fuel. Aiding Venezuela would also allow both countries to needle the US, which has levied strict sanctions against them, targeting oil sectors and high-ranking officials.
A US official told Reuters on May 14 that the US was “looking at measures that can be taken,” and that the shipment was “not only unwelcome by the United States” but also “unwelcome by the region.”
The Nour news agency, which is close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, said on Saturday that if the US “intends to create insecurity on international waterways, it would be taking a dangerous risk and that will certainly not go without repercussion.”
The following day, Iran’s government summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents US interests in Iran, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres complaining of “hegemonic gunboat diplomacy,” describing potential US action against the tankers as “a dangerous escalation.”
Iran “reserves its right to take all appropriate and necessary measures and decisive action … to secure its legitimate rights and interests against such bullying policies and unlawful practices,” Zarif wrote.
The US is still weighing how to respond to the tankers
US officials are still debating how to respond, according to The Wall Street Journal, which reported Wednesday that some were arguing the US should only intervene if Iranian fuel shipments to Venezuela become a regular occurrence.
The US could try to confiscate the shipments, as it tried unsuccessfully to do to an Iranian tanker bound for Syria last year. Officials could also sanction the tankers and their crews to deter future deliveries, the officials said.
The US Navy has already deployed a number of ships to the Caribbean as part of a counter-narcotics operation announced earlier this year. Military personnel aboard those ships could also intervene against the shipments, officials told The Journal.
In comments on Monday, the top US military commander in the region declined to comment on the shipments but described Iran’s activity as a concern.
Iran is seeking “positional advantage in our neighbourhood in a way that would counter US interests … We’re tracking that closely and sharing intel with our partners,” Adm. Craig Faller, head of US Southern Command, said during an online conference hosted by Florida International University.
“I’ve seen those same news reports that the tankers are en route. I won’t comment any further on those news reports, but I view the Iranian activity globally and in Venezuelan in specific as a concern,” Faller added.
Asked on Wednesday about potential action against the tankers, US Southern Command referred to Faller’s remarks. The US Treasury Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Faller has warned before about Iran’s activity in the region, as have other US officials. Tehran’s relationship with Caracas has been described as an axis of narco-terrorism, but there are doubts about whether their ties represent a meaningful threat to the region and US interests there.
Juan Cruz, a former Trump administration National Security Council official, said his concern about Iran was “very limited.”
“I don’t like to overstate it because it’s very convenient to do so,” Cruz said Tuesday during another conference hosted by Florida International University. “People play around with it, and it’s like a Boogeyman – when you want people to get nervous you pull out Iran.”
Iranians are “clearly” in Venezuela and play a role there, but the US needs to “right-size our worries,” added Cruz, now a senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“Faller’s words give us an expectation that probably confrontation won’t be the way forward, but maybe it will be anyway, maybe the situation pushes that in that direction,” Cruz said. “So that’s the only piece that would worry me in the short-term, and I think that concerns with Iran are real, but they tend to be overstated.”