Iranian oil tankers have been spotted steaming for Venezuela in an alleged illicit ‘gold-for-oil’ trade intended to circumvent U.S. sanctions against both Iran and Venezuela. According to Reuters, a U.S. official said the U.S. has a “high degree of certainty” that Venezuela’s illegitimate president, Nicolas Maduro’s government is paying Iran tons of gold for the fuel – and the U.S. is considering measures to respond.
The question is – will President Trump stop the tankers?
Bloomberg has reported that Venezuelan officials loaded about 9 tons of gold – worth about $500 million – on jets owned by Iran’s Mahan Air – an airline suspected of being controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and spreading COVID-19 throughout the Middle East. Flight logs show more than a dozen trips from Iran to Venezuela over the past month. This is a lot of gold for Iran’s shattered economy and fragile regime.
In exchange for oil refining technologies, “each of the flights left Venezuela loaded with gold and cash in euro and dollar denominations,” according to a U.S. official and an IRGC adviser, reported the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Despite being oil-rich, Venezuela is suffering an acute scarcity of refined gasoline.
The WSJ also reported that the Guards adviser said, “the refining renovations are under way via a contract with IRGC-controlled engineering conglomerate Khatam al-Anbiya.”
Meanwhile, at least one tanker carrying fuel loaded at an Iranian port has set sail for Venezuela, according to vessel tracking data from Refinitiv Eikon on Wednesday, reported by Reuters. According to The Nation, citing maritime services’ information, three tankers, Fortune, Petunia, and Forest are currently crossing the Atlantic, while two more, Faxon and Clavel are transiting the Mediterranean Sea, possibly also destined for Venezuela.
In an April 29 press conference, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Mahan Air flights to Venezuela “must stop.” “This is the same terrorist airline that Iran used to move weapons and fighters around the Middle East,” he said, reported WSJ. But what about these Iranian ships?
As I previously wrote, last month the U.S. deployed a task force to the Caribbean, near Venezuela, on a “counternarcotic” mission. The force includes at least three destroyers, a littoral combat ship, the USS Detroit, Coast Guard cutters, helicopters, Navy P-8 patrol aircraft, and Air Force E-3 AWACS and E-8 JSTARS for airborne surveillance. The operation also includes security forces assistance brigades.
Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there were “thousands” of sailors, Coast Guardsmen, soldiers, airmen and Marines involved. This is the largest military deployment to the region in many years. So, the forces are there to interdict the Iranian ships.
Senior Trump national security officials have also said this U.S. military deployment is not only counternarcotic, reported the Miami Herald, but also aimed at denying funds to Nicolas Maduro and his closest allies, who have been recently indicted in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges.
These Iranian ships now steaming toward Venezuela could be the test of how serious this administration is about that, and about dealing with both rogue regimes.