An Iranian tanker defied U.S. sanctions and reached Venezuela. The Iranian vessel is the first in a fleet of five tankers that have been sent to help the regime of Nicholas Maduro.

The oil ferried by the tankers will provide a much-needed injection in the Venezuelan economy, which has been crippled by U.S. sanctions. On the other hand, it will provide Tehran with cash that will enable the Iranian government to continue to function.

In a Tweet, Jorge Arreaza, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, said that “Iran and Venezuela have always supported each other in times of difficulty. Today, the first ship with gasoline arrives for our people.”

U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been in the spotlight as of late. A few weeks ago, two ex-Green Berets were caught while attempting to infiltrate Venezuela and overthrow the Maduro regime. The U.S. Government denied any involvement in the botched coup d’état but emphasized that regime change is still the desired policy toward Venezuela.

The U.S. State Department and Department of Justice have labeled Maduro a narcoterrorist and put a $15 million bounty on his head.

Maduro succeeded Hugo Chavez after the latter’s death in 2013. He won the election by a small margin. In 2019, he won another election. That election, however, has been considered illegitimate and void. Since then, Juan Guaidó, the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, has been trying to form a transition government that will govern the country until another round of elections, which would be observed by international bodies, can be held. Guaidó’s transitional government has been recognized by 58 countries, including the United States. Guaidó himself visited the U.S. earlier this year and was a guest of President Trump in the State of the Union address.

US seizes Iranian oil tankers bound for Venezuela

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Following the 2019 elections, the U.S. has imposed heavy sanctions on Venezuela. As a result, the country’s economy has tumbled. Hyperinflation and severe food and medicine shortages have precipitated a humanitarian crisis. According to the U.N., approximately 90 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty. Consequently, close to 5 million have chosen to leave the country, primarily to neighboring countries.

Both Iran and Venezuela are founding members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Comprised of 13 countries, OPEC is essentially an international cartel. According to OPEC, its goal “is to coordinate and unify the petroleum policies of its Member Countries and ensure the stabilization of oil markets in order to secure an efficient, economic and regular supply of petroleum to consumers, a steady income to producers and a fair return on capital for those investing in the petroleum industry.”

Any country with a substantial export of oil and with similar interests to that of the organization can become a full member.

The other 11 countries that belong to the organization are Algeria, Angola, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Qatar was a member until 2019.

An oil-producing nation since 1914, Venezuela has a proven oil reserve of almost 303,000 million barrels, thus making it the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world (Saudi Arabia, in comparison, has a proven oil reserve of 267,000 million barrels). The country’s oil exports make up for 99 percent of its total export earnings.

U.S. Navy vessels have been deployed off the coast of Venezuela to ensure that the sanctions are upheld. Why, then, didn’t they stop the Iranian tanker? Any action against the Iranian vessel would trigger an Iranian reaction in the Persian Gulf. Although Iranian reactions have lately been feeble (take for example Tehran’s reaction to the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani back in January), they can still cause a significant headache.

Moreover, the fact that Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, depends on oil imports by another pariah state to continue to function is a major political and propaganda defeat for the Maduro regime. Sometime this year, Venezuela will have its National Assembly elections. The ongoing humanitarian disaster that plagues the country plus such political defeats might be enough for Maduro to be cornered politically. Then again, he could very well bully his way through that election as well. Such a move, however, will only marginalize him even more.