EXCLUSIVE-From the Maldives to Venezuela: how Iran gets oil to a key ally

By Mariana Parraga

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A Venezuelan-owned supertanker sailed to a remote location in the Indian Ocean in March, encountered an Iranian-flagged vessel, picked up a cargo of Iranian condensate and sailed back home, according to monitoring services and documents. shipping.

The ship-to-ship transfer off the Maldives reveals the latest tactic by both countries to keep their oil flowing to markets despite US sanctions. A tightening energy cooperation deal between the nations is helping Venezuela secure supplies to convert its extra-heavy oil and boost exports.

Two Iranian supertankers were in Venezuelan waters this month preparing to unload imported crude and condensate for PDVSA, while Iran’s Oil Minister Javad Owji met in Caracas with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Since 2020, Iran has also helped its ally with the shipment of gasoline and equipment to repair PDVSA’s dilapidated refineries, one of which resumes operations this month after a lengthy refurbishment.

The Venezuelan-owned tanker Máximo Gorki, operated by PDVSA’s shipping arm PDV Marina, is the South American nation’s only remaining supertanker after losing three others in 2020 as part of a trade dispute with PetroChina Co.

The ship has been used primarily to transport PDVSA oil between national ports, but has also carried Venezuelan crude to Asia since Washington imposed sanctions on the country in 2019.

PDV Marina had to send a replacement crew earlier this year to China to salvage the ship, which had been stranded for weeks due to mechanical problems.

In March, the tanker finished transferring a cargo of Venezuelan heavy crude in the South China Sea, according to monitoring service TankerTrackers.com, which identified the vessel’s pairing with a receiving ship through satellite imagery.

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Days later, Maxim Gorky loaded Iranian condensate, also via ship-to-ship transfer, from the supertanker Huge, TankerTrackers.com said, a vessel often used by the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) for floating storage. .

Reuters was unable to independently verify the identities of the ships. PDVSA and NITC did not respond to requests for comment.

The Maldivian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The transfer between ships took place outside their territorial waters.

ON THEIR WAY

Ship-to-ship transfers outside the Maldives are new for Venezuela, but Iran has used waters near the archipelago before to carry out at least one similar maneuver, said the group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), which monitors Iran-related oil tanker traffic. .

«As Maxim Gorky made his journey to Venezuela, Iran was able to send an NITC tanker to meet him near the Maldives,» said Claire Jungman, UANI coordinator.

«The location is strategically convenient for Iran, as it takes about five days for Iranian tankers to get from Khor Fakkan to Malé,» the capital of the Maldives.

The supertanker docked last week in Venezuela and unloaded part of the 2 million barrels of Iranian condensate it had. Its arrival followed the arrival of the Iranian ships Dino I and Derya, which brought Iranian heavy crude and condensate, respectively, as part of an exchange agreement signed by the state oil companies of both countries in 2021.

At least another 2 million barrels of Iranian oil and 1 million more barrels of condensate are expected to be imported this month. PDVSA plans to send heavy crude and fuel oil to Iran’s National Oil Company in exchange, a source involved in scheduling the shipments said.

(Reporting by Marianna Parraga, Edited in Spanish by Vivian Sequera.)