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, according to a report by Bloomberg.
A fleet of some 10 Iranian vessels will also help export Venezuelan crude after discharging fuel.
The Nicolas Maduro regime is widening its reliance on Iran as an ally of last resort after even Russia and China have avoided challenging the U.S. ban on trade with Venezuela.
The country’s fuel crunch follows decades of mismanagement, corruption and under-investment at state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela since the time of Maduro’s late mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
The country that was once a top supplier of crude to the U.S. and boasted one of the lowest domestic gasoline prices in the world, now can barely produce any fuel.
The last Iranian fuel shipments sent in early October on three vessels are running out, threatening steeper nationwide shortages with hours-long queues at gas stations.
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.
Several vessels that transported fuel to Venezuela earlier this year, including Fortune and Horse, turned off their satellite signal at least ten days ago.
Turning off transponders is a commonly used method by ships hoping to avoid detection. In other instances of Iranian aid to Venezuela, ship names were painted over and changed to obscure the vessel’s registration.
In addition to importing fuel, Venezuela also needs to export enough crude oil to free up storage space and prevent field stoppages, a task made more difficult by the sanctions against Maduro’s regime.
Production at Venezuela’s network of six refineries has gone into steady decline, with spills and accidents becoming routine. Maduro’s government has increased pressure on the poorly-maintained infrastructure to ensure output for local consumption.
Sanctions have made it difficult to import parts or hire contractors, and the Maduro regime is running out of cash.
Consequently, the two nations are also discussing ways for Iran to help Venezuela overhaul its Cardon refinery, the last fuel plant there to operate.