CARACAS, Venezuela —
The first of five tankers loaded with gasoline sent from Iran approached Venezuelan waters late Saturday, expected to temporarily ease the South American nation’s fuel crunch while defying Trump administration sanctions targeting the two U.S. foes.

The oil tanker Fortune encountered no immediate signs of U.S. interference as it eased through Caribbean waters toward the Venezuelan coast and Venezuelan officials celebrated the arrival.

“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.”

The tanker and four behind it were finishing a high seas journey amid a burgeoning relationship between Iran and Venezuela, both of which Washington says are ruled by repressive regimes.

Russ Dallen, head of the Miami-based investment firm Caracas Capital Markets, confirmed the Fortune’s location using ship tracking technology.

Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, but it must import gasoline because production has crashed in the last two decades. Critics blame corruption and mismanagement by the socialist administration amid an economic crisis that has led to huge migration by Venezuelans seeking to escape poverty, shortages of basic goods and crime.

The Iranian tankers hold what analysts estimate to be enough gasoline to supply Venezuela for two to three weeks.

Deep gasoline shortages have plagued Venezuela for years, though the problem had until recently largely spared the capital of Caracas, the largest population center and political seat.

Drivers must wait for days in lines that snake through neighborhood to fill up with government-subsidized gasoline that costs less than a penny for a tank. Wealthier drivers with U.S. dollars turn to the black market, where gas costs up to $12 a gallon. That’s a small fortune in Venezuela, where the monthly minimum wage equals less than $5.

The U.S. accuses Iran and other nations of propping up Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. It’s among nearly 60 nations that back opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, contending that Maduro illegitimately won a 2018 election that banned his most popular opponents.

In a new relationship between Caracas and Tehran, Iran recently also flew shipments of a key chemical needed to help jump start a Venezuelan oil refinery and produce gasoline.

U.S. officials had announced no plans to try to intercept Iran’s tankers. However, the Trump administration has increased pressure on Maduro, recently offered a $15 million bounty for his arrest after a U.S. court indicted him as a narcotrafficker.

The U.S. also recently deployed a force of ships, including Navy destroyers and other combat ships, to patrol the Caribbean on what U.S. officials call a drug interdiction mission. The Maduro government considers it a direct threat.

Maduro holds on to power with support from Venezuela’s military and his international allies, also including Cuba, Russia, and China. The U.S. says these nations are engaged in “malign activities and meddling” around the world.

“We will not abide by their support of the illegitimate and tyrannical regime of Nicolás Maduro,” the Trump administration said in a statement, citing its “maximum pressure” campaign against the socialist leader. “Will continue until Maduro’s hold on Venezuela is over.”

A defiant Maduro appeared on state TV days ahead of the ships’ arrivals, vowing a tough response to any U.S. aggression against the Iranian tankers. He showed images of soldiers firing antiaircraft missiles streaking across the Caribbean.

“They want to enslave us,” Maduro said Thursday. “If you want peace, you must be prepared to defend it.”

Maduro’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, said Venezuela’s armed forces would welcome the five Iranian tankers, escorting them with ships and planes through the nation’s maritime territory and into port.

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society research center, said he didn’t expect the U.S. would act against the Iranian tankers. Such an act could too easily escalate, he said, especially in the Persian Gulf where Iran could retaliate against U.S. ships.

“(That) would needlessly undermine the narrative that Venezuela, with the world’s largest proven oil supply, has to import gasoline from Iran of all places because they have become such an international pariah,” Farnsworth said. “If they don’t, Caracas claims a great victory for the fatherland and tries to portray the U.S. as impotent.”

Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP

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