Iran is sending its largest tanker fleet to date to Venezuela, in defiance of U.S. sanctions to help the isolated country overcome a crippling fuel shortage, people familiar with the matter say.
Some flotillas of around ten Iranian vessels will also help export Venezuelan crude after unloading fuel, the people said, asking not to be named because the deal is not public.
Nicolas Maduro’s regime is expanding its dependence on Iran as an ally of last resort after even Russia and China have avoided challenging the US ban on trade with Venezuela.
The fuel crisis in the country follows decades of mismanagement, corruption and underinvestment in state-owned company Petroleos de Venezuela since the days of Maduro’s late mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez.
The country that was once a major supplier of crude to the United States and had one of the lowest domestic gasoline prices in the world, can now barely produce fuel.
The last Iranian fuel shipments sent in early October on three ships are running out, threatening greater shortages across the country with hours of queues at gas stations.
The current sailing fleet is about double that which surprised international observers for the first time in May, crossing a Caribbean Sea patrolled by the US Navy, to be greeted by Maduro himself on arrival.
“We are monitoring what Iran is doing and making sure other shippers, insurers, owners and captains of ships realize they need to stay away from this trade,” said Elliott Abrams, the special representative of the states. -United for Iran and Venezuela, in September.
Several ships that carried fuel to Venezuela earlier this year, including Fortune and Horse, turned off their satellite signals at least ten days ago, according to Bloomberg tanker tracking data.
Deactivating transponders is a method commonly used by vessels hoping to avoid detection. In other cases of Iranian aid to Venezuela, the names of ships have been painted and changed to obscure the vessel’s registration.
Tehran’s oil ministry declined to comment on the matter. Messages sent to several PDVSA officials, as Venezuela’s national oil company is known, did not receive an immediate response.
Short of money
In addition to importing fuel, Venezuela must also export enough crude oil to free up storage space and avoid field shutdowns, a task made more difficult by the sanctions against Maduro’s regime.
The output of the network of six Venezuelan refineries has declined steadily, with spills and accidents becoming commonplace. Maduro’s government has increased pressure on poorly maintained infrastructure to ensure production for local consumption.
Sanctions have made it difficult to import parts or hire subcontractors, and the Maduro regime is strapped for cash.
Therefore, the two countries are also discussing ways for Iran to help Venezuela overhaul its Cardon refinery, the last fuel plant there to operate more or less regularly, people familiar with the situation said. .
In 2018, Chinese oil companies also sought to help Venezuela repair its refineries, but lost interest after a review of the facilities, people familiar with the plans said.
It is not known if the Iranians would be able to achieve what the Chinese did not. Venezuela’s refineries were built and operated for decades by American and European oil majors until nationalization in the 1970s.
Even so, PDVSA relied on American technology and parts for maintenance and extensions. This means that the Iranians will have to manufacture some parts from scratch to make key repairs.
Some fixes made in June and July have yet to come to fruition and four local contractors are still making repairs, one of the people said.
Maduro is under new international pressure after the opposition decided to boycott the Dec. 6 National Assembly elections, widely seen as overseen by Maduro loyalists. Maduro is hoping for a strong turnout to say he has public support.