The dispatch of a flotilla of Iranian oil tankers to Venezuela has refocused attention on joint efforts by Tehran and Caracas to defy international sanctions, as the first ship approached a Venezuelan port on May 25.
The five ships are estimated to be carrying a total of about 1.5 million barrels of gasoline and chemical additives.
Venezuela was once the largest oil producer in Latin America and even now is said to sit atop the world's largest oil reserves. But production has plummeted due to corruption and mismanagement, forcing it to import oil.
Venezuela and Iran have developed close ties over the past couple of decades. Both are members of OPEC, adversaries of the US, and subject to international sanctions.
According to reports, the five tankers were loaded at a refinery near the port of Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz, and then traveled around the Arabian Peninsula, through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and then into the Atlantic. All of the ships are from companies owned by or linked to the government.
They were said to be obeying maritime traffic rules by broadcasting their position on the Automatic Identification System, which enables the vessels to be tracked. The ships are also being monitored by satellites.
Meanwhile, the first of the five ships to reach Venezuelan territorial waters was about 50 kilometers from a port west of the capital Caracas late in the evening on May 24, according to ship tracking service MarineTraffic. The second Iranian vessel entered the Caribbean on May 23 as the other three were still crossing the Atlantic, reports said.
The US, which has forces deployed in the Caribbean for a counternarcotics mission, has not officially said that it intends to stop the ships. On May 21, a Pentagon spokesman said he wasn't aware of operations regarding such Iranian vessels.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro claimed during a televised speech before the arrival of the tankers that Venezuela and Iran "have the right to freely trade in the world's seas and exchange products.”
However, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by about 60 countries including the US as the country's rightful leader, has condemned the shipment. "We are very concerned for the safety of Venezuelans, and of Latin America as well, due to this attempted Iranian presence on Venezuelan soil,” he said on May 20.
Tehran clearly considers the shipment to be a matter of significance. On May 23, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country will retaliate if the US interferes with the delivery, Iran's Mehr news agency said.
Commenting on the oil shipment, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said "Venezuelans need free and fair presidential elections leading to democracy and economic recovery, not (President Nicolas) Maduro's expensive deals with another pariah state."