Another round of Iranian oil shipments to Venezuela has been identified, in what analysts see as a test of how the US will react.
Reporting from tracking service TankerTrackers indicates three Iranian owned and flagged vessels have left Iran with a suggested routing to Venezuela via the Suez Canal.
The ships named are the 35,200-dwt Forest, Fortune and Faxon (all built 2004), all controlled by National Iranian Tanker Co (NITC).
The trio was part of a group of five ships that discharged Iranian products in the South American country in May and June.
Loading is believed to have taken place in Port Shahid Rajaee in Iran.
The ships then switched off AIS, TankerTankers said.
Forest last transmitted in Bandar Abbas, Iran, on 14 August, while Faxon was off the coast of the United Arab Emirates on 31 August and Fortune off southern Iran on 28 August.
Heading for Suez?
Security consultancy Dryad Global said it is likely that all three tankers will turn their AIS transponders back on as they approach the Suez Canal, to comply with transit regulations.
Dryad also said the move will ratchet up tensions in the region, sending a clear signal that Iran will not let the US interfere in its oil shipping.
In August, the US seized four Greek ships allegedly linked to Iranian shipments to Venezuela.
Various media outlets reported that Washington managed to confiscate the 1.16m barrels of petrol carried by the 37,400-dwt Bella (built 2000), 47,400-dwt Bering (built 1998), 46,200-dwt Pandi (built 1996) and 37,300-dwt Luna (built 2000), without the use of military force.
The four Liberian-flagged ships are managed by Vienna Ltd and Palermo SA, both of which have connections to IMS's principal Captain George Gialozoglou, TradeWinds earlier reported.
In response, Iran boarded the 8,100-dwt Wila (built 1997) near the Strait of Hormuz, which IMS also manages.
"It is likely that Iran has learnt from this previous experience that foreign-owned vessels will be more willing to comply with US restrictions and requests, and in turn Iran has sought to bring the vessels it uses ‘in house’," added Dryad.
"It remains a credible possibility that if the tankers do intend to transit to Venezuela, that the US will seek to again intervene. However, Iran has raised the stakes and has utilised vessels which will likely not be willing to give up their cargoes or comply willingly with the US."
US facing a choice
Dryad said the move presents the US with the choice of whether to board or detain the tanker trio.
But the firm added: "It is not yet clear whether the US believes it is in their national interest to follow this course of action, or if it is operating within a legal framework which would allow it to do so."
Dryad predicted a "swift and proportionate" from Iran should the US intervene, following the "tit for tat" model of recent years.
The consultancy believes US or Saudi Arabian ships would then be at risk, and possibly UAE vessels too.
Despite sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela has faced a severe domestic fuel shortage due to a lack of maintenance on its refineries and oil fields.