|Venezuelan soldiers on a helicopter and navy ships take part in a military exercise near Punto Fijo, Venezuela July 24, 2019 © Miraflores Palace / REUTERS|
"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," Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said on Wednesday, referring to the five Iranian-flagged vessels expected to bring some much-needed fuel to Venezuela in late May or early June.
His announcement comes after Washington signaled it might interfere with the vessels' passage, with one official telling Reuters last week that the US has been “looking at measures that can be taken,” while calling the impending delivery “unwelcome” by the US and by the region as a whole.
Such talk has drawn ire in Tehran, with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi accusing the US of threatening “piracy” and vowing “a decisive response” if Washington moves to impede “free and legal movement” of the tankers.
Iran’s ambassador to Brussels expressed hope on Wednesday that no incident will take place during the passage of the ships, noting however that Tehran will “respond proportionally” to any US provocation.
“It’s completely out of any expectation that conflict would be started by Iran there, by an oil tanker,” Gholam-Hossein Dehghani said in an interview with Euronews.
Both Caracas and Tehran have been targeted by crippling US sanctions, which hit oil sales particularly hard. Oil revenue makes up some 98 percent of Venezuela's total export earnings.
Even though it has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela has had to declare an “energy emergency” in February, to shield its oil industry from “imperialist aggression” in the form of US sanctions.
After recognizing opposition figurehead Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s ‘interim president’ last year, the US has ramped up its economic onslaught against the government of President Nicolas Maduro with a flurry of punitive measures, including freezing billions in assets of Venezuela’s oil giant PDVSA and directing frozen funds to the opposition.