Iran has warned the United States against conducting “piracy” in the Caribbean as five Iranian tankers laden with fuel sail toward Venezuela.
The tankers’ voyage comes as a senior U.S. official told Reuters on May 14 that the United States was considering what action it could take in response to Iran's shipment of fuel to crisis-stricken Venezuela.
In a letter to United Nations chief Antonio Guterres on May 17, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned the United States about “sending troops to the Caribbean Sea with the aim of interfering with the transfer of Iran’s fuel to Venezuela.”
Zarif wrote that the United States must “give up bullying on the world stage” and respect international maritime law, calling any U.S. move “piracy and a major peril to international peace and security,” according to a statement on the Foreign Ministry website.
Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, summoned the Swiss ambassador in Tehran and issued a similar warning. He told the Swiss, who represent U.S. interests in Iran, that any U.S. threat against the tankers will be met with an “immediate and firm response.”
Unilateral U.S. sanctions have targeted Iran and Venezuela’s oil industry and other sectors, depriving Tehran of much-needed cash and adding pressure on Venezuela’s badly managed economy.
Tehran has already helped President Nicolas Maduro by flying planes with chemicals for refineries amid a gasoline shortage, a symptom of economic and political chaos in Latin America's one-time largest oil producer.
With both countries under U.S. sanctions, there is little to stop them from directly trading or bartering with each other outside international financial channels.
Elliot Abrams, the U.S. State Department's Venezuela envoy, last month alleged that Venezuela is paying Iran in gold to help its troubled energy sector and denounced growing cooperation between Washington's two adversaries.
The five Iranian tankers are estimated to be carrying at least $45.5 million in fuel.
Four of the vessels -- Petunia, Fortune, Forest, and Faxon -- are already in the Atlantic after passing through the Suez Canal and Mediterranean, according to ship tracking service MarineTraffic.
One of the vessels, the Clavel, is still in the Mediterranean as of May 18.
The latest tensions come after the U.S. Navy in April accused Iran of harassing its ships in Persian Gulf.
Iran last year seized ships off its waters and Britain briefly seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar to prevent it from shipping oil and fuel to Syria in violation of sanctions.
The United States has accused Tehran of attacking several vessels in the Persian Gulf.
Tensions between the two countries escalated after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018.