Rouhani says Iran will retaliate over any US 'trouble' for Venezuela-bound tankers
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned on Saturday of retaliatory measures against the United States if Washington causes problems for tankers carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela, the semi-official news agency Mehr reported.
"If our tankers in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world face trouble caused by the Americans, they will also be in trouble," Rouhani said in a telephone conversation with Qatar's Emir, Reuters quoted him as saying, citing Mehr.
The shipments have caused a diplomatic standoff between Iran and Venezuela and the United States, as both nations are under US economic sanctions.
A flotilla of five tankers carrying Iranian fuel for petrol-starved Venezuela is approaching the Caribbean. Venezuelan state television reported on Saturday that the first tanker would reach the country's waters at 7pm local time (23.00 GMT).
TankerTrackers.com, a service that tracks oil shipments and storage, estimated that the lead vessel in the flotilla, the Fortune, would arrive in Venezuela's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between 9 and 11pm local time.
Venezuela's defence minister has said its navy and air force will escort the Iranian tankers once they reach the nation's EEZ.
"We're ready for whatever, whenever," President Nicolas Maduro told state-run media, giving thanks for "all the support" from its Middle East ally in its confrontation with the US, according to AFP.
The tankers are carrying about 1.5 million barrels of petrol and alkylate to Venezuela, according to both governments, sources and calculations made by TankerTrackers.com, based on the vessels' draft levels.
“You have two pariah states finding that they are able to exchange things they need for things they have,” Elliott Abrams, US special representative to Venezuela, told the Washington Post.
Washington is considering measures in response, according to a senior US official, who did not elaborate on any options being weighed.
On Saturday, Rouhani reportedly said: "Iran will never initiate a conflict… We hope that the Americans will not commit an error."
The United States recently beefed up its naval presence in the Caribbean for what it said was an expanded anti-drug operation.
Still, a Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said on Thursday that he was not aware of any operations related to the Iranian cargoes.
Analysts say the US administration is more likely to use additional economic sanctions than force to deter Iranian-Venezuelan trade, the Washington Post reported.
While Trump has staked out hawkish positions on Iran - pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal, imposing punishing sanctions and authorising the January killing of the military commander Qassem Soleimani - he has at other times demonstrated a desire to avert major conflict.