MIAMI (AP) — The Trump administration has seized the cargo of four tankers it was targeting for transporting Iranian fuel to Venezuela, U.S. officials said Thursday, as it steps up its campaign of maximum pressure against the two heavily sanctioned allies.
Last month, federal prosecutors in Washington filed a civil forfeiture complaint alleging that the sale was arranged by a businessman with ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. At the time, sanctions experts thought it would be impossible to enforce the U.S. court order in international waters.
A senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that no military force was used in the seizures and that the ships weren't physically confiscated. Rather, U.S. officials threatened ship owners, insurers and captains with sanction to force them to hand over their cargo, which now becomes U.S. property, the official said.
It is not clear where the vessels or their cargoes currently are.
Prosecutors alleged the four ships were transporting to Venezuela 1.1 million barrels of gasoline. But the tankers — the Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna — never arrived at the South American country and then went missing. Two of the ships later reappeared near Cape Verde, a second U.S. official said.
Both officials agreed to discuss the sensitive diplomatic and judicial offensive only if granted anonymity.
Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela, Hojad Soltani, pushed back on what would appear a victory for the U.S. sanctions campaign, saying Thursday on Twitter that neither the ships nor their owners were Iranian.
“This is another lie and act of psychological warfare perpetrated by the U.S. propaganda machine,” Soltani said. “The terrorist #Trump cannot compensate for his humiliation and defeat by Iran using false propaganda."
As commercial traders increasingly shun Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government has been increasingly turning to Iran.
In May, Maduro celebrated the arrival of five Iranian tankers delivering badly needed fuel to alleviate shortages that have led to days-long gas lines even in the capital, Caracas, which is normally spared such hardships.
Despite sitting atop the world’s largest crude reserves, Venezuela doesn’t produce enough domestically refined gasoline and has seen its overall crude production plunge to the lowest in over seven decades amid its economic crisis and fallout from U.S. sanctions.
The Trump administration has been stepping up pressure on ship owners to abide by sanctions against U.S. adversaries like Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. In May, it issued an advisory urging the global maritime industry to be on the lookout for tactics to evade sanctions like dangerous ship-to-ship transfers and the turning off of mandatory tracking devices — both techniques used in recent oil deliveries to and from both Iran and Venezuela.