By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON, May 14 (Reuters) – The United States is considering measures it could take in response to Iran‘s shipment of fuel to crisis-stricken Venezuela, a senior official in President Donald Trump’s administration told Reuters on Thursday.
The United States has a “high degree of certainty” that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government is paying Iran tons of gold for the fuel, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It is not only unwelcome by the United States but it’s unwelcome by the region, and we’re looking at measures that can be taken,” the official said.
The oil sectors of Iran and Venezuela – members of OPEC that both are deeply at odds with the United States – are under tough U.S. sanctions. The official declined to specify the measures being weighed but said options would be presented to Trump, a fierce critic of the governments of both Iran and Venezuela.
At least one tanker carrying fuel loaded at an Iranian port has set sail for Venezuela, according to vessel tracking data from Refinitiv Eikon on Wednesday, which could help ease an acute scarcity of gasoline in the South American country.
The Iran-flagged medium tanker Clavel earlier on Wednesday passed the Suez Canal after loading fuel at the end of March at Iran‘s Bandar Abbas port, according to the data.
Venezuela is in desperate need of gasoline and other refined fuel products to keep the country functioning amid an economic collapse that has occurred under Maduro. It produces crude oil but its infrastructure has been crippled during the economic crisis.
The shipment marks the latest sign of cooperation between the Iran and Venezuela. Starting last month, several flights from Tehran have brought materials to Venezuela to help it restart the catalytic cracking unit at its 310,000 barrel-per-day Cardon refinery, drawing U.S. condemnation.
Venezuela’s 1.3 million-bpd refining network has all but collapsed due to under-investment and lack of maintenance in recent years under the socialist Maduro.
Last year, the United States imposed sanctions on state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) as part of Trump administration efforts to oust Maduro, whose 2018 re-election was considered a sham by most Western countries.
The United States and dozens of other nations recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president last year. But Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet, remains in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China, Cuba and Iran.
Some U.S. officials have said this has been a growing source of frustration for Trump.
The United States also maintains punishing sanctions on Iran aimed at containing its regional power in the Middle East, measures that were re-imposed after Trump pulled out of an international nuclear deal with Tehran.
Four other vessels of the same size as the Clavel, all flagged by Iran and loaded with fuel at or near Bandar Abbas, are about to cross the Atlantic Ocean after passing Suez. They have not yet set their final destinations, data showed.
One of them, the Fortune, appears on a list of tankers scheduled to enter Venezuelan port, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Opposition politicians also said they had received information that all five tankers were heading to Venezuela.
The U.S. official said Venezuela’s need to resort to Iranian fuel showed the Maduro government’s “desperation.”
“We’ve spoken to enough people and I’ve seen enough to have a high degree of certainty” that Iran is getting paid with “a handsome amount of gold,” the official added, declining to elaborate.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month called on countries to deny overflight rights to Mahan Air, an Iranian airline under U.S. sanctions, which he said delivered cargoes of “unknown support” to the Venezuelan government.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga and Luc Cohen; Editing by Will Dunham)