MIAMI (Dispatches) — U.S. federal prosecutors are seeking to seize four tankers sailing toward Venezuela with gasoline supplied by Iran, the latest attempt to disrupt ever-closer trade ties between the two heavily sanctioned anti-American allies.
The complaint filed late Wednesday in the District of Columbia federal court alleges that the sale was arranged by a businessman with ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).
Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, said any attempt by the U.S. to prevent Iran’s lawful trading with any country of its choosing would be an act of "piracy, pure and simple.”
"This is a direct threat to international peace and security and in contravention of international law including the UN Charter,” he said in a statement.
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 not to deal with Iran and Venezuela.
In May, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro celebrated the arrival of five Iranian tankers delivering badly needed fuel supplies 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 the ongoing crisis and fallout from U.S. sanctions.
We are "two rebel nations, two revolutionary nations that will never kneel down before U.S. imperialism,” Maduro said at the time. "Venezuela has friends in this world, and brave friends at that.”
The flotilla’s arrival angered the Trump administration, which struck back by sanctioning the five Iranian captains of the vessels.
The four tankers named in the complaint filed Wednesday — the Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna — are currently transporting to Venezuela 1.1 million barrels of gasoline obtained via risky ship-to-ship transfers, prosecutors allege.
The lawsuit, filed late on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was followed on Thursday by a warrant issued by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg for the seizure of gasoline in the four vessels.
Legal sources said the gasoline could likely only be seized by U.S. authorities if the tankers enter U.S. territorial waters.
The lawsuit also aims to stop the flow of revenues from oil sales to Iran, which Washington has sanctioned over its nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and influence across the Middle East.
Last year, the Trump administration failed to stop a tanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian oil, the Adrian Darya formerly known as Grace 1, through blacklisting it and other measures.
The vessel was originally seized by the British Royal Marine commandos on suspicion being en route to Syria, but was released by Gibraltar. After a warrant was issued for the Adrian Darya, Brian Hook, the State Department’s top Iran official, sent emails to its captain saying the Trump administration was offering him several million dollars to steer the tanker to a country that would impound it on behalf of Washington. The oil was eventually sold to Syria.