Venezuelans may soon suffer the bad fortune of closer ties to Iran

The arrival of an Iranian petrol tanker in Venezuela this week threatens to renew friction in the Americas

epa08443856 A handout photo made available by the Ministry of Communication and Information (MinCI) shows workers on the 'Fortune' the Iranian ship with gasoline in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, 25 May 2020. The first of the Iranian ships loaded with 245 million liters of gasoline arrived at El Palito near Puerto Cabello, one of the largest refineries in Venezuela, Venezuela Minister of Petroleum Tareck el Aissami reported Monday. This is the first of five ships from Iran that will arrive in Venezuela as part of a commercial fleet and in addition to gasoline contains other materials that will be used by the state oil company PDVSA. Gasoline has been scarce in Venezuela for weeks and to be able to refuel it is necessary to queue for hours, sometimes days, without a guarantee of being able to fill the entire tank of a vehicle.  EPA/MinCI / HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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On the face of it, Iran’s decision to send shipments of fuel to Venezuela can be seen as an act of desperation, whereby two countries that have been brought to their knees by international isolation seek to help each other overcome their difficulties.

Both Iran and Venezuela, for very different reasons, have been subjected to harsh economic sanctions that have had a devastating impact on their respective economies.

Tehran has been hit by one of the most severe sanctions regimes the world has ever seen because of Washington's objections to its nuclear programme, and its persistent meddling in the Middle East.

Handout photo released by the Venezuelan Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information (Minci) showing the Iranian-flagged oil tanker Fortune arriving at the El Palito refinery in Puerto Cabello, in the northern state of Carabobo, Venezuela, on May 25, 2020. The first of five Iranian tankers carrying much-needed gasoline and oil derivatives docked in Venezuela on Monday, Caracas announced amid concern in Washington over the burgeoning relationship between countries it sees as international pariahs. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /MINCI " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Photo released by the Venezuelan Ministry of Popular Power for Communications and Information shows the Iranian-flagged tanker 'Fortune' arriving at El Palito refinery in Puerto Cabello, in the northern state of Carabobo, Venezuela, on May 25. AFP

As far as Venezuela is concerned, the dispute between Caracas and Washington has a more ideological outlook, with the right-wing Trump administration refusing to engage with the hard-left socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Having overseen the devastating collapse of the Venezuelan economy, the origins of which date back to the rule of Mr Maduro’s charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chavez, the government in Caracas now finds itself desperate for any form of economic assistance to head off mounting anti-government protests.

It is in this context that the Iranian government, which has experienced its own difficulties with anti-regime protests over its inept management of the economy, has offered to come to Venezuela’s aid by sending a flotilla of tankers to provide Mr Maduro with much-needed economic support in his hour of need.

Thus the arrival of the first Iranian oil tanker, the Fortune, in Venezuela this week was hailed as a national victory by the Maduro government: a clear demonstration that, for all the economic pressure applied by Washington, the Venezuelan regime still has allies.

The arrival of the tankers, though, represents a hollow victory for the Venezuelan leader

The importance of the Iranian lifeline to Venezuela, which Tehran has compared with the Berlin airlift the Allies conducted during the Cold War, was reflected in the fact that Caracas ordered Venezuelan fighter jets to escort the Iranian convoy on the last leg of its journey to protect it against any possible military intervention on the part of the US.

In all, a total of five ships will deliver an estimated 1.5 million barrels of Iranian fuel, with the deliveries, according to reports, being paid for with Venezuelan gold.

In a tweet posted shortly after the arrival of the first tanker, Mr Maduro wrote: “Thanks Iran – only the brotherhood of free peoples will save us.”

The arrival of the tankers, though, represents a hollow victory for the Venezuelan leader.

Venezuela, an Opec state, sits on the world’s biggest oil reserves and was once a major oil producer.

But decades of economic mismanagement by successive socialist governments, as well as lack of investment and the effects of US sanctions, have brought the industry to its knees.

Consequently, the national oil refineries have become so dilapidated that they are no longer able to produce petrol for domestic consumption.

This has left Caracas in the humiliating position of having to import it from other rogue states such as Iran.

Moreover, the country’s severe fuel crisis has only served to increase popular disquiet with Mr Maduro’s administration.

In recent weeks, the crisis has become so acute that people are spending days queuing at petrol stations, with many being forced to walk miles to work.

A Venezuelan oil worker walks in the El Palito refinery during the arrival of Iranian oil tanker Fortune near Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, Monday, May 25, 2020. The first of five tankers loaded with gasoline sent from Iran is expected to temporarily ease Venezuela's fuel crunch while defying Trump administration sanctions targeting the two U.S. foes. (AP Photo/Ernesto Vargas)
A Venezuelan oil worker walks in El Palito refinery during the arrival of Iranian oil tanker Fortune near Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, on May 25. Ernesto Vargas / AP

And while the Iranian delivery will help to ease the shortages in the short term, they are unlikely to provide a long-term solution to Mr Maduro’s difficulties.

Oil experts believe that Iran has only been able to undertake the deliveries because a shortage of domestic demand for fuel in Iran caused by the coronavirus pandemic means it has a rare surplus of supplies.

But this will end as the country begins to return to normal, thereby limiting Iran’s ability to carry out further exports to Venezuela.

This may well explain Washington's disinclination to take much interest in the transaction.

While the official position of the Trump administration is to maintain its support for Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaido, who President Donald Trump described during his State of the Union address  as “the true and legitimate president of Venezuela”, the White House has shown no real interest in involving itself in the country’s domestic turmoil.

The American attitude to the petrol shipment was summed up by Elliott Abrams, the US special representative to Venezuela.

“You have two pariah states finding that they are able to exchange things they need for things they have,” Mr Abrams said.

Of greater concern for Washington would be any attempt by Iran to deepen its ties with Venezuela to the point where they pose a threat to America’s southern flank.

The two countries have a decades-long relationship going back to Mr Chavez, who formed a close alliance with Iran’s then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Under Mr Chavez, the Iranians ran car factories and cement plants and built thousands of homes.

Now concerns are being raised in US security circles that Iran might seek to build on its deepening engagement with Mr Maduro to extend its presence in Venezuela.

Tehran has been looking for ways to undermine the US since Mr Trump authorised the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran's Quds Force, in January.

Admiral Craig Faller, commander of US Southern Command, warned this week that the objective of Iran’s fuel deal with Caracas was to “gain positional advantage in our neighbourhood in a way that would counter US interests”.

And if Iran really is serious about building its influence in Venezuela to use the country as a launch pad against the US, then Washington is likely to take a much closer interest in any future deals, trade or otherwise, that take place between Caracas and Tehran.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor