By SCOTT SMITH, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela said Wednesday that the two nations, both under increasing U.S. pressure, are exercising their right to trade freely in a deal that includes shipping the South American nation five tankers of gasoline to relieve deep shortages.
Ambassador Hojjatollah Soltani said international conventions protect the expanding ties between the two U.S.-sanctioned nations.
“This relationship between Iran and Venezuela doesn’t threaten anybody. It’s not a danger to anyone,” Soltani said in a meeting with reporters at the Iranian embassy in Caracas.
The five Iranian tankers now on the high seas are expected to start arriving to Venezuela in the coming days. They are carrying gasoline to help alleviate days-long lines at service stations even in Caracas, which had normally been immune to shortages as the capital and seat of political power.
While Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, its oil production has plummeted in the last two decades, which critics blame on corruption and mismanagement under socialist rule. Recent U.S. sanctions designed to force socialist-President Nicolás Maduro from power have also impacted Venezuela’s production.
Trump’s National Security Council tweeted Monday that few financial lifelines remain for Maduro. The U.S. is among nearly 60 nations that recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
“Our maximum pressure campaign, which includes financial & economic sanctions, will continue until Maduro’s tyrannical hold ends,” the National Security Council said. “The humanitarian & economic crisis endured by Venezuelans is the fault of 1 person—Maduro.”
Few financial lifelines remain.
Our maximum pressure campaign, which includes financial & economic sanctions, will continue until Maduro’s tyrannical hold ends.
The humanitarian & economic crisis endured by Venezuelans is the fault of 1 person–Maduro.https://t.co/m24R8TCBHm
— NSC (@WHNSC) May 18, 2020
Warning against any U.S. threats toward the Iranian vessels, Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said that planes and boats from his country’s armed forces would escort them through its maritime territory and into port.
Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncada, lashed out at the U.S., saying any attempt to stop the Iranian tankers would be illegal.
“Forbidding those boats from reaching their destination would constitute a crime against humanity,” Moncada said at a UN Security Council meeting to discuss recent turmoil in Venezuela.
In addition to sending the fuel-laden tankers, Iran has flown in shipments of a chemical needed to restart an aging gasoline refinery. For Iran, the business ties represent a way to bring money into its cash-starved nation and apply its own pressure on Washington.
Ambassador Soltani denied claims that Iranian planes returned from Venezuela loaded with gold to pay for Iran’s support. He accused Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of spreading “fake news” to undermine the deal, which the ambassador called a “win-win” for both Venezuela and Iran.
“They can sanction whoever they want,” Soltani said. “Iran will always advance.”
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed to this report.