Venezuela’s military will escort Iranian tankers amid US threats

Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez (R).

Venezuela said its navy and air force would escort Iranian tankers, after Tehran warned of "consequences" if the US tried to stop the ships from reaching their destination, news wires reported. "We're ready for whatever, whenever," President Nicolas Maduro told state-run media on Wednesday.

Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said that when the Iranian ships enter the oceanic economic zone, 200 nautical miles from the coastline, "they will be welcomed" by Venezuelan naval ships and warplanes. Neither Maduro nor Padrino said when the ships, which according to press reports number five and sailed from Iran in the past days, will arrive.

Venezuela has the world's largest proven oil reserves, but its capacity to refine crude into gasoline is limited. The US President Donald Trump's administration imposed unilateral sanctions aimed at ending oil exports from Iran and Venezuela, both major crude producers. Washington has also sanctioned individual Venezuelans and Iranians.

In early April the US military said it was increasing its vigilance and deploying warships in the ocean near Venezuela, arguing that there was an increase in organized crime.

Opposition leader and National Assembly speaker Juan Guaido, recognized by some 60 nations as interim president, claims that Iran was paid with gold illegally extracted from mining camps in the south of the country. "They are paying for that gasoline with blood gold," Guaido said during a videoconference organized by the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

Teheran and Caracas established close ties during the government of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Maduro regime also counts on support from Russia, China, Turkey and Cuba.

Admiral Craig Faller, head of the Florida-based US Southern Command, said Monday that the United States is following the Iranian actions "with concern," but refrained from any comments on the tankers. Iran's Fars News claimed Saturday that four US Navy warships are in the Caribbean for a "possible confrontation with Iran's tankers."

The following day Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Washington against deploying its navy to disrupt the fuel shipments. In a letter to UN chief Antonio Guterres, Zarif said that any such action would be "illegal and a form of piracy." He added that the US would be responsible for "the consequences of any illegal measure."

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