5 Iran tankers sailing to Venezuela amid US pressure tactics

FILE - In this April 30, 2017 file photo, released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, center, inaugurates the Persian Gulf Star Refinery in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Five Iranian tankers likely carrying at least $45.5 million worth of gasoline and similar products are now sailing to Venezuela as of Sunday, May 17, 2020, part of a wider deal between the two U.S.-sanctioned nations amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington. Analysts say the gasoline they carry came from the Persian Gulf Star Refinery. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)
FILE - In this April 30, 2017 file photo, released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, center, inaugurates the Persian Gulf Star Refinery in Bandar Abbas, Iran. Five Iranian tankers likely carrying at least $45.5 million worth of gasoline and similar products are now sailing to Venezuela as of Sunday, May 17, 2020, part of a wider deal between the two U.S.-sanctioned nations amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington. Analysts say the gasoline they carry came from the Persian Gulf Star Refinery. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)

DUBAI – Five Iranian tankers likely carrying at least $45.5 million worth of gasoline and similar products are now sailing to Venezuela, part of a wider deal between the two U.S.-sanctioned nations amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington.

The tankers' voyage came after Venezuela's socialist leader Nicolás Maduro already turned to Iran for help in flying in chemicals needed at an aging refinery amid a gasoline shortage, a symptom of the wider economic and political chaos gripping Latin America's one-time largest oil producer.

For Iran, the tankers represent a way to bring money into its cash-starved Shiite theocracy and put its own pressure on the U.S., which under President Donald Trump has pursued maximalist campaigns against both nations.

But the strategy invites the chance of a renewed confrontation between the Islamic Republic and America both in the Persian Gulf, which saw a series of escalating incidents often involving the oil industry last year, and wider afield.

“This is like a new one for everyone,” said Capt. Ranjith Raja, an analyst who tracks oil shipments by sea at the data firm Refinitiv, of the gasoline shipments. “We haven't seen anything like this before.”

All the vessels involved belong to Iranian state-owned or state-linked companies, flying under the Iranian flag. Since a pressure campaign on Iranian vessels began, notably with the temporary seizure of an Iranian tanker last year by Gibraltar, the country's ships have been unable to fly flags of convenience of other nations, a common practice in international shipping.

The ships all appear to have been loaded from the Persian Gulf Star Refinery near Bandar Abbas, Iran, which makes gasoline, Raja said. The ships then traveled around the Arabian Peninsula and through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea, according to data collected from the ship's Automatic Identification System, or AIS, which acts as a tracking beacon.

One of the vessels, the Clavel, listed its AIS destination as Caracas beginning May 12, according to log data from ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com. The vessel later changed its destination as “TO ORDER” two days later, though the ship remains on a route that will see it leave the Mediterranean Sea and be in position to sail on to Venezuela.