DUBAI/VALENCIA, Venezuela (Dispatches) -- The first of five Iranian tankers carrying fuel to Venezuela has moored at a port serving the South American country’s El Palito refinery, the nation’s oil minister said Monday, and Refinitiv Eikon data showed a second vessel had entered its waters.
Iran is providing Venezuela with 1.53 million barrels of gasoline and refining components in a move criticized by U.S. authorities as both countries are under U.S. sanctions, according to the governments, sources and calculations by TankerTrackers.com.
Refinitiv Eikon data showed that the tanker Fortune docked at one of El Palito’s berths around 1 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) Monday.
A second vessel, the Forest, had entered Venezuelan waters and was being escorted by Venezuela’s military on Monday morning, the navy posted on Twitter. A third tanker, the Petunia, was approaching the Caribbean, according to the data.
Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s economy vice president and recently named oil minister, posted photos on Twitter of the Fortune arriving. "We continue advancing and overcoming,” El Aissami wrote.
A senior Trump administration official said earlier this month that Washington was considering a response to the shipments, but a Pentagon spokesman said last week he was not aware of any military move planned against the vessels, and the first two vessels did not appear to face any interference.
Venezuela is suffering severe shortages of gasoline due to the near-complete breakdown of its 1.3 million barrel-per-day refining network under U.S. sanctions aimed at ousting President Nicolas Maduro.
Venezuelan officials have said the arrival of the gasoline is a victory over U.S. sanctions.
President Maduro defended the right to "freely trade” with Iran as he announced that the first of the five Iranian vessels had arrived in Venezuela.
Maduro thanked Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, saying Venezuela has "good and brave friends” in the world.
Maduro defended the deal as part of a previous cooperation agreement. "We, Venezuela and Iran, want peace,” he said. "We have the right to freely trade products throughout the seas of the world.”
Venezuela’s armed forces escorted the vessels as they entered Venezuelan waters. Iran’s embassy in Caracas also tweeted about the arrival.
Upon the first tanker’s arrival, Venezuelans stormed Twitter to express gratitude to Tehran for the shipments, turning #GraciasIran into the Latin American nation’s top-trending hashtag on the social networking platform.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel also hailed Iran’s shipments, saying they have broken the "unacceptable and criminal” blockade imposed by the United States on Venezuela. "#LongLiveSolidarity among peoples,” he twitted.
The Trump administration is reviewing a host of options to deter Iran’s support for Maduro, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, Bloomberg said.
Advisers to the president are urging a measured approach that doesn’t flare up U.S.-Iran tensions over a small supply of fuel, the person said.
Iran’s foreign ministry has said any attempt by the U.S. to stop them will be met with "a swift and decisive response.”
President Rouhani warned of retaliatory measures against the United States should Washington make "trouble” for Iranian tankers carrying fuel to gasoline-starved Venezuela.
"If our tankers in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world face trouble from the Americans, they will also be in trouble in kind,” Rouhani said in a phone conversation with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on Saturday.
Iran reserves the legitimate right to defend its national sovereignty and territorial integrity and secure its own interests, Rouhani said, adding, "We hope the Americans do not make a mistake.”
Major General Muhammad Baqeri, chairman of the Chiefs of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, said Iran enjoys full intelligence command over the United States’ military movements in and far beyond the region and would respond to any move that endangered Iranian interests at any location across the world.
A crew of Iranian technicians is already at work at state-run Petroleos de Venezuela’s Cardon and Amuay refineries, as part of a broader assistance plan that’s brought over workers, supplies and parts in exchange for about 9 tons of gold, or $500 million worth.