Iran and Venezuela have formed a strategic partnership to circumvent punitive U.S. sanctions imposed on both countries by the Trump administration. In October 2019, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani commended Venezuela’s “praiseworthy” resistance to U.S. pressure. “All their [U.S.] conspiracies against us have failed,” Rouhani said in a meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Azerbaijan. “Iran and Venezuela have always supported each other in all international and political arenas and will continue to do so.”
Iran-Venezuela ties developed in the 1960s—when the shah was still in power and Venezuela was a young democracy—with cooperation on oil. In 1960, they were two original members—along with Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). But under both the monarchy and the theocracy, Iran’s relations with Venezuela were minimal until Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999.
Khatami and Chavez (1999-2005)
Chavez first visited Iran in May 2001 with a high-level delegation of oil industry, economic and diplomatic officials. In a speech, the Venezuelan leader said that Iran and Venezuela shared a common resistance to U.S. “hegemony and imperialism” and vowed to increase trade and cooperation with Iran.
President Khatami and President Chavez in Tehran in 2004
During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Iran and Venezuela steadily increased trade and energy cooperation. In March 2005, President Khatami signed Iran’s first free trade agreement with Venezuela during a visit to Caracas. The agreement, worth $1 billion, included cooperation in mining, shipping, the marine trade, and the oil and gas industry.
At the end of Khatami’s term in 2005, Chavez presented him with the Golden Key of the City of Caracas, a sign of gratitude for Khatami’s efforts to promote ties between the two countries, during a visit to Venezuela.
Ahmadinejad and Chavez (2005-2013)
Both ideologues who often railed against the United States, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Chavez became political and commercial allies. Between 2005 and 2012, the two countries signed more than 270 accords, including trade deals and agreements on construction projects, automobile production, energy initiatives and banking programs. The two leaders also became personal friends. They often referred to each other as “brothers,” and Chavez once called Ahmadinejad “the gladiator of anti-imperialist struggles.” In 2006, Ahmadinejad presented Chavez with the golden High Medallion of the Islamic Republic during a visit to Tehran.
President Ahmadinejad and President Chavez in Tehran in 2009
Chavez supported Iran’s nuclear program and development of peaceful nuclear technology as a “legitimate right.” In September 2008, Chavez announced that Venezuela was “interested in developing nuclear energy, for peaceful ends of course.” In November 2008, Iran and Venezuela signed a science and technology agreement formalizing cooperation on nuclear technology. In September 2009, Venezuelan Mining Minister Rodolfo Sanz said that Iranian experts were helping Venezuela conduct geological surveys to locate uranium deposits.
Cooperation in the oil and gas industry increased during the Ahmadinejad years. In 2009, Iran and Venezuela established a binational development bank in Caracas with a $200 million investment to support joint economic, industrial and mining projects. Later that year, the countries established a joint oil company and agreed to invest $760 million in each other’s energy sectors.
Rouhani and Maduro (2013-Present)
Chavez died in office in 2013 and was replaced by his Vice President Nicolas Maduro. Ties between Iran and Venezuela diminished. President Rouhani did not initially give priority to relations with Latin America. But in June 2015, the two countries signed six agreements in the economic, financial, technological and scientific fields. In August 2016, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with President Maduro in Caracas and vowed to increase economic cooperation.
President Rouhani and President Maduro in Tehran in 2015
Relations increased after the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran in November 2018. In April 2019, Iran’s Mahan Air resumed commercial flights between Tehran and Caracas. Later that year, Iran and Venezuela signed new scientific and technological agreements for cooperation in education, nanotechnology, biotechnology and engineering.
In 2020, Tehran and Caracas boosted cooperation in the oil and gas field to circumvent U.S. sanctions. On April 23, Venezuela announced that it had received materials from Iran to help restart the Cardon refinery, which could produce up to 310,000 barrels of gasoline per day. Planes operated by Iran’s Mahan Air reportedly delivered catalysts, which are chemicals needed to produce gasoline, to Las Piedras airport on the Paraguana peninsula in western Venezuela, where the refinery is located. The United States accused Iran of accepting payment in gold bars to help rebuild Venezuela’s ailing oil industry.
Iran denied the U.S. charge as a “baseless” rumor. “Iran has never received such a consignment,” said Hojattolah Soltani, Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela. He also rejected claims that Iranian experts were helping rebuild Venezuelan refineries.
In May, Venezuela’s refining capabilities reportedly increased from 110,00 barrels per day (bpd) to about 215,000 bpd after the arrival of the spare parts from Iran.
Iranian Fuel Shipment
In early May 2020, five Iranian tankers – the Clavel, Faxon, Forest, Fortune and Petunia – departed from a refinery near Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf coast to deliver 1.53 million barrels of gasoline, worth at least $45.5 million, to Venezuela. It was the first shipment of Iranian gasoline to Venezuela, according to Hojattolah Soltani, Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves. But years of government mismanagement and U.S. sanctions on its oil industry have left its refineries in disrepair. The country faced gas shortages and widespread blackouts as a result. “You have two pariah states finding that they are able to exchange things they need for things they have,” said Elliott Abrams, U.S. special representative to Venezuela.
The Venezuelan Air Force released a video thanking Iran for sending fuel and standing up to the “imperialist” United States
The United States condemned the shipment of fuel and deployed four warships and a patrol aircraft to the Caribbean on May 16. Admiral Craig Faller, head of the U.S. Southern Command in the Caribbean, accused Iran of attempting to “gain a positional advantage in our neighborhood as a way to counter U.S. interests.” The United States said that it was weighing options about how to respond.
A crew member of the Forest waived an Iranian and a Venezuelan flag
On May 17, Iran summoned the Swiss ambassador in Tehran to relay a “serious warning” to Washington not to interfere with the fuel shipment. Foreign Minister Zarif said that Iran “reserves its right to take all appropriate and necessary measures and decisive action ... to secure its legitimate rights and interests against such bullying policies and unlawful practices.”
Between May 23 and June 2, the Clavel, Faxon, Forest, Fortune and Petunia reached ports in Venezuela. The tankers were escorted by the Venezuelan military once they reached the Caribbean. The United States did not interfere with the fuel shipments despite prior warnings.
On June 24, the United States sanctioned five Iranian ship captains who had delivered 1.5 million barrels of gasoline to Venezuela. The captains of the Clavel, Faxon, Forest, Fortune and Petunia were employed by the U.S.-sanctioned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines and National Iranian Tanker Company. "As a result of today’s sanctions, these captains' assets will be blocked," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. "Their careers and prospects will suffer from this designation. Mariners who are considering work with Iran and Venezuela should understand that aiding these oppressive regimes is simply not worth the risk." The following is a timeline of Iran’s fuel shipment.
Timeline of Iran’s Fuel Shipment to Venezuela in 2020
Apr. 23: Erling Rojas, the vice minister for refining and petrochemicals in Venezuela’s Oil Ministry, announced that Venezuela had received materials from Iran to help restart its Cardon refinery, which could produce up to 310,000 barrels of gasoline per day. Rojas said that Iran had shipped catalysts, which are chemicals needed to refine oil into gasoline. Planes operated by Iran’s Mahan Air had reportedly conducted a series of flights from Tehran to an airport near the refinery.
Apr. 30: The United States charged that Iran was accepting payment in gold in exchange for helping Venezuela rebuild it ailing oil industry. “Those planes that are coming in from Iran that are bringing things for the oil industry are returning with the payments for those things: gold,” said Elliott Abrams, the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela. U.S. officials reported that nine tons of gold, equal to about $500 million, left Venezuela on Tehran-bound jets during the month of April. Mahan Air had allegedly made more than six flights to Venezuela since April 23.
May 11: Hojattolah Soltani, Iran’s Ambassador to Venezuela, rejected U.S. claims that Tehran was accepting gold bars from Venezuela as payment for oil products, calling them “baseless” rumors. “Iran has never received such a consignment,” Soltani said. “To date, the governments of the two countries have held talks on bilateral trade cooperation, but so far Iranian fuel has not entered Venezuela.”
May 13: The Clavel, an Iran-flagged medium tanker, traveled through the Suez Canal in route to Venezuela after loading gasoline at Iran’s Bandar Abbas port at the end of March, according to tracking data from maritime intelligence companies Refinitiv Eikon and Tanker Trackers. Four other Iran-flagged tankers were following the same path from Bandar Abbas into the Atlantic Ocean but had not listed their final destinations.
May 14: The United States said that it was weighing its responses to Iran’s fuel shipment to Venezuela. “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,” one U.S. official told Reuters.
May 15: Iran’s Nour news agency, linked to the elite Revolutionary Guards, warned that Iran would respond to any U.S. move to stop the fuel shipment. “If the United States, just like pirates, intends to create insecurity on international waterways, it would be taking a dangerous risk and that will certainly not go without repercussion,” the media outlet said.
May 16: The United States deployed four warships and a patrol aircraft to the Caribbean.
May 17: Five tankers belonging to Iranian state-owned or state-linked companies were transporting around 1.5 million barrels of gasoline worth at least $45.5 million to Venezuela, according to the Associated Press. The vessels were reportedly loaded from the Persian Gulf Star Refinery near Bandar Abbas. The Clavel had originally listed its destination as Caracas on May 12, but two days later it appeared as “TO ORDER.” Another tanker, the Forest, logged its destination as “S. AMERICA TO ORDER.” The Faxon, the Fortune and the Petunia had not listed destinations but appeared on track to Venezuela.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned against “America's movements in deploying its navy to the Caribbean in order to intervene and create disruption in [the] transfer of Iran's fuel to Venezuela.” In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Zarif said that Iran “reserves its right to take all appropriate and necessary measures and decisive action ... to secure its legitimate rights and interests against such bullying policies and unlawful practices.”
Iran summoned the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who represents U.S. interests in the country, to communicate Iran’s “serious warning” not to interfere with its fuel shipment.
May 18: Tehran said that the United States would face a “decisive response” if it targeted Iran’s oil tankers. “The U.S. itself will have to suffer the repercussions that arise out of any unthinking measure [that it could take] against the Iranian vessels,” foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said during a press briefing. “Free trade between independent countries is a legal act. What is illegal is robbery in the sea, which the U.S. is the leader of.”
May 20: The Venezuelan military said that it would escort the five Iranian tankers transporting fuel to the country. “When they enter our exclusive economic zone, they will be escorted by Bolivarian National Armed Forces boats and planes to welcome them in and thank the Iranian people for their solidarity and cooperation,” said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino.
RT @pinfantea: Historic Moment! This was the meeting between the Ocean Patrol Yekuana and the oil tanker Fortune. Venezuela is not alone! Thank you Iran! Long live the Iran-Venezuela Brotherhood! #VivaLaHermandadVenezuelaIran @NicolasMaduro pic.twitter.com/BxexLKMcfZ— Nicolás Maduro (@maduro_en) May 26, 2020
May 23: The Fortune, the first of five Iranian tankers, reached Venezuelan waters. It was carrying around 11 million gallons of gasoline. “Iran and Venezuela have always supported each other in times of difficulty,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted. “Today, the first ship with gasoline arrives for our people.” There were no reports of interference by U.S. warships deployed to the region.
Earlier that day, President Rouhani had warned of retaliation if the United States interfered with the gasoline shipment. “If our tankers in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world face any problems caused by the Americans, they will face problems as well,” Rouhani said. “We hope the Americans will not make a mistake.”
May 25: The Fortune docked at a port connected to Venezuela’s El Palito refinery. Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s oil minister, called the Fortune “a symbol of the brotherhood and solidarity” between the two countries and thanked Iran for the shipment of “fuel, additives and spare parts.” The Forest, a second Iranian tanker, reached Venezuelan waters, according to Venezuelan state media.
May 27: The Forest docked at the country’s second-largest refinery, Cardon, in western Venezuela. The third Iranian tanker, the Petunia, arrived in Venezuelan waters. President Maduro said that he would announce a plan for distribution of the fuel in the coming days. "Now we will be able to go in phases toward a new normal in terms of gasoline supply," Maduro said.
U.S. officials said that two Liberian-flagged tankers—the Bering and the Bella—loaded with Iranian oil bound for Venezuela cancelled their deliveries due to the threat of U.S. sanctions. Liberia pulled the vessels’ accreditation after the U.S. State Department contacted the government.
The crew of the Forest celebrated with the Venezuelan military after docking
May 28: The Faxon, Iran's fourth tanker, docked at the Puerto la Cruz refinery on Venezuela’s eastern coast.
Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani praised the crews of Iran's oil tankers. He called them "national heroes" and said their actions spread Iran's influence around the world.
May 29: U.S. Special Representative to Venezuela Elliott Abrams warned foreign countries and companies that aiding Iran's fuel shipment to Venezuela could result in U.S. sanctions. Abrams said that it would be "a very dangerous transaction." He added that the United States had sent the warning to ship owners, ship captains, ship insurers and ports between Iran and Venezuela.
May 30: Iranian fuel began reaching gas pumps across Venezuela. President Maduro announced that 200 filling stations would sell fuel at international market prices, a break from country-wide subsidized gasoline. Venezuelans would still be able to purchase limited amounts of subsidized fuel at nine cents a gallon. "The time has come to move toward a new policy, toward a new normality, toward a new situation," Maduro said in a state TV broadcast.
June 1: Iran said that it was ready to ship additional fuel to Venezuela. "Iran practices its free trade rights with Venezuela, and we are ready to send more ships if Caracas demands more supplies from Iran," Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on state television.
June 2: The Clavel, Iran's fifth tanker, reached Venezuelan waters carrying 1.53 million barrels of gasoline. It was the last of five Iranian tankers set to deliver much-needed fuel to the country.
June 3: Venezuela said that it planned to import additional gasoline from Iran. "Tehran yesterday offered to supply Venezuela with more gasoline and refinery additives. President Maduro very likely will accept the offer because we need the fuel," a Venezuelan official reported.
June 8: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the crews of Iran's oil tankers that delivered fuel to Venezuela.
To the Iranian oil tankers’ crew that sailed to #Venezuela:— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) June 8, 2020
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
May God give strength to you dear ones, the Captains and staff. You did a great job. It was Jihad & brought honor to the country. May you be successful, God willing.
General Ali Jafarabadi, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) Aerospace Force Space Division, said that the homegrown "Noor" satellite that Iran had launched into orbit in April was used to track Iran's fuel shipment. "In the Atlantic Ocean, where access (to ships) is normally more difficult, monitoring the position of the oil tankers and the situation in their surroundings was put on the agenda of the Noor satellite, and was accomplished," Jafarabadi said in and interview with Tasnim News Agency.
June 10: General Hossein Salami, commander of the IRGC, said that Iran "imposed its will" on its enemies by shipping fuel to Venezuela. "By God’s grace, today we are witnessing the early and rapid decline of our archenemies, particularly the U.S., Salami said.
June 22: Ali Aqamohammadi, a member of Iran's Expediency Council, announced that the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company had received payment from Venezuela for the shipment of fuel delivered by five Iranian tankers. He added that the money was deposited in the country's treasury.
June 24: The United States announced sanctions on the Iranian captains of the the Clavel, Faxon, Forest, Fortune and Petunia. The mariners were employed by the U.S.-sanctioned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines and National Iranian Tanker Company. “The Treasury Department will target anyone who supports Iranian attempts to evade United States sanctions and who further enables their destabilizing behavior around the world,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. “The Iranian regime’s support to the authoritarian and corrupt regime in Venezuela is unacceptable, and the Administration will continue to use its authorities to disrupt it.”
July 1: U.S. prosecutors filed a civil-forfeiture complaint to seize four Iranian tankers carrying gasoline to Venezuela in violation of U.S. sanctions. "The profits from these activities support the IRGC’s full range of nefarious activities, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, support for terrorism, and a variety of human rights abuses, at home and abroad,” prosecutor Zia Faruqui said in the complaint. The prosecutors allege that the tankers listed in the complaint—the Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna—were transporting 1.1 million barrels of gasoline that they obtained using discrete ship-to-ship transfers. The complaint alleged that Mahmoud Madanipour, an Iranian businessman linked to the IRGC, helped facilitate the fuel sale by forging documents about the tankers and their cargo.
Timeline of Bilateral Relations
September: OPEC was formed by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to co-ordinate and unify petroleum policies.
May: Chavez visited Iran for the first time. He said that he came to Tehran “to prepare the road for peace, justice, stability and progress for the 21st century.” Chavez commended Iran on its resistance to the United States and vowed to increase trade ties with the Islamic Republic.
Mar. 12: Iran signed its first free trade agreement with Venezuela. During a visit to Caracas, President Khatami inked several accords, including cooperation on geological and mining projects, shipping and marine trade, and memoranda of understanding on oil, gas and petrochemistry. The agreements were worth a total of $1 billion. During the visit, Chavez presented Khatami with the Golden Key of the City of Caracas to thank him for expanding the relationship between the two countries, a sign of gratitude to honor Khatami’s efforts to increase ties between the two countries.
July: President Hugo Chavez and his oil minister, Rafael Ramírez, visited Tehran and signed agreements for the joint production of nearly a dozen products, including a $4 billion investment in two Venezuelan energy projects by Iranian company Petropars Ltd. The two countries also launched the construction of a joint methanol facility with an annual capacity of 1.65 million tons on Iran’s Persian Gulf coast.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised Chavez as “the brother of the whole Iranian nation” and presented him with the golden High Medallion of the Islamic Republic. “We stand by Iran at every moment, in any situation,” Chavez said upon accepting the award. “If the U.S. succeeds in establishing its dominance there will be no future for humanity. Therefore, we should save humanity and end the American empire.”
A crowd flocked to see Chavez during a trip to Tehran
Jan. 13: President Ahmadinejad met with President Chavez in Caracas to discuss strengthening trade ties. During the talks, Iran and Venezuela agreed to establish a $2 billion investment fund “with the aim of supporting joint economic, industrial and mining projects as well as speeding up the current projects.” Ahmadinejad and Chavez also agreed to press OPEC for output cuts to increase oil prices, which were at a 19-month low.
November: Iran and Venezuela signed a “science and technology” agreement formalizing cooperation “in the field of nuclear technology.” The following week, Venezuela’s Ministry of Energy and Petroleum submitted a presentation to the International Atomic Energy Agency documenting the establishment of a “nuclear power program.”
March: Iran and Venezuela established a binational development bank in Caracas, the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo. The bank, which was a subsidiary of the Export Development Bank of Iran, was funded at $200 million to support “joint economic, industrial and mining projects as well as speeding up the current projects,” according to Iranian state media.
April: Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar met with Venezuelan officials in Caracas to discuss defense cooperation. It was the first visit by an Iranian defense minister to Venezuela since 1979 Iranian Revolution. The two countries reportedly shared sensitive information on their military developments and capabilities and agreed to joint training exercises.
Sept. 25: Venezuelan Mining Minister Rodolfo Sanz said that Iranian experts were helping his country conduct geological surveys to locate uranium deposits. Venezuela had an estimated 50,000 tons of un-mined uranium, which the United States feared could be used to help Iran develop a nuclear weapon.
October: Venezuelan First Secretary for Energy Affairs Louis Mayta announced that “Iran and Venezuela are establishing an oil company named Beniroug which allows us to make investments and activities [sic] in other countries, including Cuba, Sudan, China and Bolivia.” Iran agreed to pay for Venezuelan gasoline in the form of investments in Venezuela’s energy projects.
Iran and Venezuela agreed to invest $760 million in each other’s energy sectors. Venezuela pledged to export 20,000 barrels of gasoline per day to Iran.
January: President Ahmadinejad met with President Chavez in Caracas. The two leaders signed agreements in the areas of industry, science, technology and politics. They vowed to unite in resistance to the United States. “It's clear they are afraid of our development,” Ahmadinejad said. “Our weapon is logic. Our weapon is culture. Our weapons are human values.”
Mar. 5: Hugo Chavez died after 14 years in office. Ahmadinejad attended his funeral in Caracas. He declared a national day of mourning in Iran and offered a personal tribute to the late president. “He is alive, as long as nations are alive and struggle for consolidating independence, justice and kindness,” Ahmadinejad wrote in a letter published by the semi-official Mehr News Agency. “I have no doubt that he will come back, and along with Christ the Savior, the heir to all saintly and perfect men, and will bring peace, justice and perfection for all.”
Jan. 12: President Maduro met with President Rouhani in Tehran during his tour of OPEC countries. The two leaders pledged to work together to stabilize global oil prices. Maduro said that plummeting oil prices were the product of a “geopolitical war” with the United States.
Jun. 26: Iran and Venezuela inked six agreements in the economic, financial, technological and scientific fields. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro agreed to a $500 million credit line to fund joint investments and help improve supplies of goods “necessary for the Venezuelan people,” including drugs and surgical equipment.
Nov. 23: President Maduro met with President Rouhani in Tehran to discuss oil prices and trade ties. “Tehran is fully ready to expand scientific and educational cooperation with the Venezuelan part, to meet Venezuelans trade and industrial demands and to implement joint projects based on the previous agreements,” said Rouhani.
Aug. 26: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with President Maduro in Caracas. Zarif and Maduro vowed to increase trade between the two countries. Venezuela launched a special commission to push forward bilateral deals signed in 2015. “We are advancing in our bilateral cooperation as well as in matters of mutual interest for economic development ... we are going to create a new dynamism in Venezuela-Iran relations,” said President Maduro.
April: Iran’s Mahan Air resumed commercial flights between Tehran and Caracas. Flights between the two capitals were halted in 2010.
Apr. 15: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of meddling in Venezuela. “Iranian money remains in South America being used for malign purposes, supporting Hezbollah, supporting transnational criminal organizations, supporting efforts at terrorism throughout the region,” Pompeo told the Voice of America.
November: Iran and Venezuela signed new “scientific and technological” agreements for cooperation in “education, nanotechnology, biotechnology and engineering, according to the Venezuelan government. Caracas did not provide additional details about the deal.
Jan. 8: Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Lopez condemned the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela strongly condemns this terrorist act and I extend my heartfelt condolences to you and the people of Iran on behalf of the Venezuelan armed forces, the people of my country and all the commanders.” Lopez said in a phone call to Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami. “We will side with Iran to fight the (global) arrogance.”
June 8: Iran sent medical equipment to Venezuela to help stem the COVID-19 outbreak. "Right now, what we are receiving is different types of testing kits,” Venezuelan Planning Minister Ricardo Menendez said on state television.
June 21: The Golsan, an Iranian cargo ship transporting 23,000 tons of product, delivered food to Venezuela to stock the first Iranian supermarket in the country. The Iranian embassy in Caracas praised the delivery as "another success in friendly and fraternal relations between two countries."
Alex Yacoubian, a program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, assembled this report.