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story.lead_photo.caption Iran's ambassador to Venezuela Hojjatollah Soltani speaks during an event in support of the Palestinian people, at the Iranian embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Soltani said Wednesday that the two nations under increasing U.S. pressure, Iran and Venezuela, are exercising their right to free trade in a deal that includes shipping the Caribbean nation five takers of gasoline to relieve a deep shortage. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela said Wednesday that the two nations — under increasing U.S. pressure — are exercising their right to trade freely in a deal that includes shipping the South American nation five tankers of gasoline to relieve deep shortages.

Ambassador Hojjatollah Soltani said international conventions protect the expanding ties between the two U.S.-sanctioned nations.

“This relationship between Iran and Venezuela doesn’t threaten anybody. It’s not a danger to anyone,” Soltani said in a meeting with reporters at the Iranian embassy in Caracas.

The five Iranian tankers now on the high seas are expected to start arriving to Venezuela in the coming days. They are carrying gasoline to help alleviate days-long lines at service stations even in Caracas, which had normally been immune to shortages as the capital and seat of political power.

While Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves, its oil production has plummeted in the last two decades, which critics blame on corruption and mismanagement under socialist rule. Recent U.S. sanctions designed to force socialist-President Nicolás Maduro from power have also impacted Venezuela’s production.

Trump’s National Security Council tweeted Monday that few financial lifelines remain for Maduro. The U.S. is among nearly 60 nations that recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

“Our maximum pressure campaign, which includes financial & economic sanctions, will continue until Maduro’s tyrannical hold ends,” the National Security Council said. “The humanitarian & economic crisis endured by Venezuelans is the fault of 1 person — Maduro.”

Warning against any U.S. threats toward the Iranian vessels, Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said planes and boats from his country’s armed forces would escort them through its maritime territory and into port.

Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncada, lashed out at the U.S., saying any attempt to stop the Iranian tankers would be illegal.

“Forbidding those boats from reaching their destination would constitute a crime against humanity,” Moncada said at a UN Security Council meeting to discuss recent turmoil in Venezuela.

In addition to sending the fuel-laden tankers, Iran has flown in shipments of a chemical needed to restart an aging gasoline refinery. For Iran, the business ties represent a way to bring money into its cash-starved nation and apply its own pressure on Washington.

Ambassador Soltani denied claims Iranian planes returned from Venezuela loaded with gold to pay for Iran’s support. He accused Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of spreading “fake news” to undermine the deal, which the ambassador called a “win-win” for Venezuela and Iran.

“They can sanction whoever they want,” Soltani said. “Iran will always advance.”

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