Though largely off the mainstream media's radar amid all things pandemic related, we've been closely following the saga of Iran's provocatively sending five fuel-laden tankers to gasoline-starved Venezuela, despite repeat and growing threats of US intervention against the brazen sanctions-busting mission.
And now surely escalating matters from Washington's point of view, the Maduro government has vowed it will provide navy ships and military aircraft to escort the inbound Iranian fuel tankers.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said on Wednesday that the military escort will be prepared to defend the ships once they enter Venezuela's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 miles off the coast — this after Trump was previously reported to have ordered a US naval build-up in the Caribbean in order to thwart sanctions-busting and narco-trafficking conducted by the Latin American country.
“When they enter our exclusive economic zone, they will be escorted by Bolivarian National Armed Forces boats and planes to welcome them in and thank the Iranian people for their solidarity and cooperation,” Padrino said on state television.
He underscored that he was closely coordinating with Iran's defense minister, also after Washington has focused on the sanctioned Iranian airline Mahan Air's flights in and out of Caracas of late, said to be carrying vital equipment for Venezuela's derelict fuel refineres, needed for domestic gas consumption.
Meanwhile, Reuters details that the tankers are expected to arrive within the next weeks:
The tankers - Fortune, Forest, Petunia, Faxon and Clavel - are carrying around 1.5 million barrels of fuel, and passed the Suez Canal in the first two weeks of May, Refinitiv Eikon data show. They are expected to arrive in Venezuela between late May and early June.
To be expected, US-backed opposition leader and self-proclaimed 'Interim President' Juan Guaido is focusing outrage on the presence of Iranians in propping up the Maduro regime.
The Iranian foreign ministry has sent a letter, warning the US against taking any action against the Iranian tankers carrying fuel to Venezuela and says that any threat against them will be met with a ‘firm response’#Venezuela #Iran pic.twitter.com/NWBEQar79T— CNW (@ConflictsW) May 18, 2020
“We are very concerned for the safety of Venezuelans, and of Latin America as well, due to this attempted Iranian presence on Venezuelan soil,” said Guaido. Echoing Washington accusations, Guaido further said Maduro is paying Tehran "blood gold" which rightfully belongs to the Venezuelan people.
The US has lately accused nefarious outside state actors of helping to facilitate the scheme to 'smuggle' gold out of Caracas as payment for the inbound Iranian gasoline as well as refining supplies and support. Pompeo even threw China in the mix in statements made Tuesday.
Meanwhile, many pundits are warning of a clash in the Caribbean, given the presence of US Navy ships.
As five Iranian oil tankers steam toward Venezuela in defiance of U.S. sanctions on both states, @MarkTFitz argues, "There is absolutely no need to consider military interdiction and the resulting potential for larger-scale conflict.” https://t.co/pGlhCQqT1S— Responsible Statecraft (@RStatecraft) May 21, 2020
Iran has warned that any US attempt at intercepting its fuel tankers "would have serious repercussions for the Trump administration ahead of the November elections" — suggesting the return of a tit-for-tat tanker war scenario such as played out in the gulf last summer.