By Maria Ramirez and Luc Cohen
PUERTO ORDAZ, Venezuela/NEW YORK, Aug 27 (Reuters) – An Iranian-flagged vessel loaded a cargo of alumina in Venezuela this month after delivering supplies for an Iranian supermarket in the South American nation, three sources familiar with the shipment said, in the latest sign of closer ties between the U.S.-sanctioned nations.
Reuters could not determine who the customer for the alumina cargo was, nor where it was destined. The Golsan, a general cargo ship with a capacity to carry 22,882 tonnes, is currently sailing east across the Atlantic Ocean, but still signals its destination as the La Guaira port in Venezuela, according to Refinitiv Eikon data.
The vessel is owned by Mosakhar Darya Shipping Co and managed by Rahbaran Omid Darya, both Tehran-based companies blocked in November 2018 when the Trump administration reimposed sanctions on hundreds of Iranian banking and shipping companies as it withdrew from a multilateral nuclear deal.
The companies share an address. Rahbaran Omid Darya did not respond to an email requesting comment. Reuters could not reach Mosakhar for comment.
Neither Venezuela’s information ministry nor Iran‘s mission to the United Nations responded to requests for comment on the shipment.
The two OPEC countries have escalated their trade links in recent months as the U.S. sanctions have squeezed their economies. Iran sent Venezuela five fuel tankers in April to help resolve paralyzing gasoline shortages and airlifted in equipment to help restart output at Venezuela’s largest petroleum refining complex.
Officials in Caracas and Tehran have not specified how Venezuela has paid for the fuel shipments or the refinery equipment. U.S. officials have said Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s government is paying with gold.
The growing economic ties between Iran and Venezuela have irked Washington, which is seeking to oust Maduro and thwart Iran‘s nuclear ambitions.
The Trump administration this month seized fuel cargoes aboard four tankers destined for Venezuela and sanctioned a Chinese company assisting Mahan Air, the Iranian airline that conducted the refinery equipment airlifts to Venezuela.
Alumina is a powder refined from bauxite that is a key material for manufacturing aluminum. Iran has for years been producing aluminum powder for use in its missile program at a secret facility set up by the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Reuters reported in June, citing a former Iranian government official and documents relating to the facility.
Washington has sanctioned Iran‘s metals sector, including aluminum companies, arguing they are connected to the country’s nuclear, military or ballistic missile programs.
Venezuelan state television on Tuesday evening reported that the Golsan was transporting Venezuelan fruits to Iran. The Iranian embassy in Caracas said on Twitter on Aug. 22 that Venezuela had shipped a cargo of mangos and pineapples to Iran as part of “win-win commercial relations,” along with a video of trucks at Venezuela’s La Guaira port.
Refinitiv Eikon data show the Golsan travelled to La Guaira after loading at Venezuelan state-owned bauxite and alumina company CVG Bauxilum’s port, before setting sail on Aug. 19.
The Golsan had departed in May from Bandar Abbas in Iran arriving in Caracas in late June, Refinitiv Eikon vessel tracking data show.
Iran‘s ambassador to Venezuela said at the time it was carrying provisions for the new Iranian supermarket in Caracas, which opened in July.
Refinitiv Eikon data showed the Golsan later navigated down the Orinoco river in eastern Venezuela and in early August, docked at a port belonging to CVG Bauxilum, where the three sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it loaded the cargo.
Two of the people familiar with the shipment said the vessel loaded with 14,000 tonnes of alumina.
“We have advanced in our production of metallurgic-grade calcined alumina to meet national needs…with an eye toward attracting foreign currency to the country with our exports,” CVG Bauxilum President Ernesto Rivero said in response to Reuters’ written questions on the shipment.
Venezuela has little domestic use for alumina, given that its aluminum smelters are operating well below capacity amid a six-year economic meltdown.
(Reporting by Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela and Luc Cohen in New York; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas, Michelle Nichols in New York, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Marguerita Choy)