The U.S. has seized the cargo of four Iranian vessels believed to have been carrying an estimated 1.1 million barrels of gasoline allegedly bound for Venezuela.
On Thursday, U.S. officials told the Associated Press they used legal means to seize the Iranian fuel shipments arranged between an Iranian businessman and Venezuela. The officials said the U.S. did not use military force or physically seize the cargo shipments but instead used sanctions against its private owners, insurers and their captains. With their latest actions, a U.S. official told the AP the Iranian fuel “now becomes U.S. property.”
It is not clear where the fuel shipments actually are as the four tanker vessels — the Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna —reportedly turned off their tracking systems to hide their locations from U.S. searchers.
The new development comes a month after U.S. prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture complaint alleging the shipments were arranged as a private sale between businessman Mahmoud Madanipour and Venezuela. Madanipour is alleged to have ties to Iran’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a U.S.-designated terror group.
U.S. sanctions experts who spoke with the AP after the initial civil forfeiture complaint was filed said they believed the civil forfeiture effort would be difficult to enforce in international waters.
With increased sanctions against Venezuela, dictator Nicolás Maduro has looked to Iran for economic support. Though Venezuela sits on the world’s largest crude oil reserve, the country does not produce enough refined gasoline to meet its own domestic demands. There have even been days-long gasoline wait lines in the Venezuelan capital city of Caracas.
The first set of Iranian fuel shipments arrived in Venezuela in May, amid U.S. warnings that it was considering measures to stop the shipments. After a second set of Iranian fuel shipments arrived in Venezuela, some Iranian’s began touting the shipments as a “humiliation” of U.S. sanctions efforts.
The Trump administration has been stepping up measures to limit fuel shipments between Iran and Venezuela in recent months. In May, the U.S. issued an advisory warning other countries to be on the lookout for tactics used to circumvent sanctions, such as dangerous attempts to transfer cargo from one ship to the next or turning off tracking systems to avoid detection.
The Wall Street Journal reported that a U.S. federal judge in Washington also granted the U.S. title to another fuel tanker, the Grace 1, last week. The Grace 1 was previously seized by the U.K. near the island territory of Gibraltar. The Grace 1 was eventually released over U.S. objections, but the federal judge ruled last week that the U.S. had shown enough evidence that the tanker and its fuel were assets of a designated terrorist organization.