"We're ready for whatever, whenever," said Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday as his nation's defense ministry announced it would begin using Navy warships to escort Iranian oil tankers to port amid fears the U.S. government would try to interfere with deliveries of much-needed fuel supplies to the South American nation.
According to Agence France Presse:
In early April the US military said it was increasing its vigilance and deploying warships in the ocean near Venezuela, arguing that there was an increase in organized crime.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said that when the Iranian ships enter the oceanic economic zone—200 nautical miles from the coastline— "they will be welcomed" by Venezuelan naval ships and warplanes.
Neither Maduro nor Padrino said when the ships, which according to press reports number five and sailed from Iran in the past days, will arrive.
Though Venezuela has among the largest oil reserves in the world, its limited infrastructure to refine gasoline makes it more dependent in imports. The increased tensions over the Iranian shipments come a day after the U.S. imposed a new set of sanctions against Iran on Wednesday and as the Trump administration continues its belligerent stance against both Tehran and Caracas.
Last week, following reports that the U.S. was threatening to interfere or "harass" tankers carrying gasoline to Venezuela, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres warning the U.S. away from any such actions.
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In the letter, according to a statement by the Iranian foreign ministry, Zarif Zarif dismissed the "illegal, dangerous and provocative" threats as a form of "marine piracy" that puts international peace and security at great risk. Zarif also "stressed that the U.S. must give up bullying on the world stage and respect the rule of international law, especially free shipping in the high seas."
Separately, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Seyyed Abbas Araqchi communicated to the U.S. through available diplomatic channels that because Iran-Venezeula relations are "completely legitimate and legal," any effort to interfere with the delivery of oil would be a clear violation of international law and warned any threat against its tankers by the U.S. would "be met with Iran's immediate and firm response."
As Mark Fitzpatrick wrote for Responsible Statecraft on Wednesday, "It would be highly unusual and provocative for the U.S. Navy to stop and board the Iranian ships on the high seas, but not totally without precedent." Fitzpatrick laid out several possible scenarios or justifications under which the U.S. might attempt such an audacious move on the high seas:
Former U.S. 5th Fleet commander Vice Admiral John Miller suspects that the tankers probably have on-board force protection personnel from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. This would make the ships “fair game,” he said, under the U.S. designation of the IRGC in 2019 as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was enacted vis-à-vis those responsible for the 9/11 attacks against the U.S., has been expanded to broadly apply to any group designated as a foreign terrorist organization and was the stated justification for the January 3 targeted killing of IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani.
Another conceivable legal justification for interdiction would be if Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaido, recognized by the U.S. and some 50 other countries as the legitimate ruler of the country, were to ask for U.S. assistance in seizing the ships if they enter Venezuelan territorial waters. While it would make little political sense for Guaido to make such a contentious move, the involvement of one of his aides in a bungled invasion of Venezuela organized by U.S. special forces veterans in early May suggests that facilitating a U.S. effort to block the ships from unloading oil is within the realm of the possible.
For his part, Fitzpatrick added that it would be "senseless" for the U.S. to interfere with the delivery.
"It would be condemned by nearly every other country in the world as an abuse of U.S. power," he warned, adding that an "interdiction would give Iran grounds for retaliation against U.S. military or civilian assets anywhere in the world at a time and place of its choosing" and risk opening up "an entire new front in an undeclared war" that has dragged on for years.