US says it seized four Iranian fuel shipments en route to Venezuela

Reuters – The United States on Friday said it has seized four Iranian fuel shipments en route to Venezuela and confiscated the cargoes, disrupting a key supply line for both Tehran and Caracas as they defied U.S. sanctions.

“With the assistance of foreign partners, this seized property is now in U.S. custody,” the Justice Department said in a statement, adding that the amount confiscated from four tankers was approximately 1.116 million barrels of fuel, making it the largest-ever U.S. seizure of Iranian fuel. It did not specify when, where or how the seizure took place.

Washington has imposed sanctions on both countries to choke oil exports and deprive them of their main source of revenue in its bid to see the ouster of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and change the behavior of Iran’s government. It has also threatened to sanction any ship owners and vessels involved in oil trade with Tehran and Caracas.

Tensions between Iran and the United States increased last year following a series of incidents involving shipping in and near the Middle East Gulf.

U.S. prosecutors filed a lawsuit in July to seize the gasoline aboard the four tankers, and a judge subsequently issued a warrant for seizure. Legal sources previously told Reuters that the cargoes could not be seized until they were in U.S. territorial waters.

The owners of the four vessels agreed to have the fuel transferred so it could be shipped to the United States, a U.S. government source said on Thursday. The warrant only covered the cargoes, not the vessels.

The four tankers that initially carried the cargoes were the Liberia-flagged Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna. They are owned and managed by companies controlled by Greece-based firms Vienna LTD and Palermo SA.

Vienna and Palermo did not reply to requests for comment.

The Justice Department said that, following the seizure, Iran’s navy forcibly boarded an unrelated ship in an apparent attempt to recover the seized petroleum, and added that the U.S. military’s Central Command published a video of it on Thursday.

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Mexico City and Jonathan Saul in London; Editing by David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis