The Trump administration has seized the cargo of four tankers it was targeting for transporting fuel from Iran to Venezuela, US officials said, in an intensification of Washington’s campaign to apply maximum pressure against both allied nations.
Last month, federal prosecutors in Washington filed a civil embargo lawsuit, alleging that the sale of the fuel was arranged by a businessman, Mahmud Madanipour, linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. foreign. At the time, sanctions experts believed that it would be impossible to enforce a US court order in international waters.
A senior US official told The Associated Press on Thursday that force was not used to carry out the seizures and that the vessels were not physically seized. Instead, US officials threatened the owners, insurers and captains of the ships with penalties to force them to hand over their cargoes, which have now become US property, according to the official.
Prosecutors alleged that the four ships were transporting 1.1 million barrels of gasoline to Venezuela. However, the tankers never arrived in the South American country and later disappeared. Two of the vessels subsequently reappeared near Cape Verde, a second US official said.
Both officials agreed to comment on the delicate diplomatic and judicial offensive on condition of anonymity.
Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela, Hojad Soltani, downplayed what appeared to be a victory for the US sanctions campaign, saying on Twitter Thursday that none of the ships or owners were Iranian.
“This is another lie and an act of psychological warfare perpetrated by the US propaganda machine,” Soltani said. “The terrorist #Trump cannot make up for his humiliation and defeat to Iran by using false propaganda.”
It is unknown where the ships – named Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna – or their cargoes are located. But weeks ago their captains turned off their tracking devices to conceal their locations, said Russ Dallen, a Miami partner at the Caracas Capital Markets brokerage, which tracks vessel movements.
The Bering stopped broadcasting its location on May 11 in the Mediterranean, near Greece, and has not turned on its transponder since, and the Bella did the same on July 2 in the Philippines, Dallen said. The Luna and the Pandi were last detected when they were sailing together through the Gulf of Oman on July 10, the date the US confiscation order was issued. According to shipping information, the Pandi, which they also call Andy, reported that it was “scrapped” or sold for scrap, according to Dallen.
As more commercial operators avoid doing business with Venezuela, the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro has increasingly turned to Iran.
In May, Maduro celebrated the arrival of five Iranian tankers that delivered much-needed fuel to reduce the shortage that had caused long lines in Caracas, which rarely suffered such hardships.
Despite having the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela does not produce enough refined gasoline and registers a drop in its oil extraction to its lowest level in just over seven decades amid its economic crisis and the consequences of sanctions. Americans.
The Trump administration has been stepping up pressure on ship owners to comply with sanctions imposed on US adversaries such as Iran, Venezuela and North Korea.
In May it issued an advisory urging the global maritime sector to remain vigilant against tactics to evade sanctions such as dangerous ship-to-ship transfers and the shutdown of mandatory tracking devices, both used in recent crude deliveries from Iran to Venezuela. .
One of the companies implicated in the shipments to Venezuela, the Avantgarde Group, was previously linked to the Revolutionary Guard and attempts to evade US sanctions, according to prosecutors.
An Avantgarde affiliate facilitated the purchase for the Revolutionary Guard of Grace 1, a vessel seized last year by Britain due to US allegations that it was carrying oil to Syria. Iran denied the allegations and Grace 1 was eventually released. However, the seizure sparked an international crisis in which Tehran retaliated against a British-flagged ship.
According to the asset seizure lawsuit, a company not mentioned by name billed Avantgarde a cash payment of $ 14.9 million in February for the sale of gasoline aboard the Pandi. However, a text message between Madanipour and another unnamed conspirator suggests that there had been difficulties in making the crossing.
“The owner of the boat does not want to go because of the American threat, but we want him to go, and we even agreed that we will also buy the boat,” the message stated, according to an excerpt included in the lawsuit.
Follow Joshua Goodman on Twitter @APJoshGoodman