The United States reportedly confiscated four vessels carrying gasoline from Iran to Venezuela this week, following federal prosecutors’ calls for the tankers to be seized last month.
The four vessels, Luna, Pandi, Bering and Bella, were allegedly seized at sea in recent days. Recent reports indicate that the ships are now in Houston, Texas, although other sources maintain that the current whereabouts of the ships are not known yet.
The ships had turned off their tracking devices several weeks ago in an attempt to prevent monitoring by governments and tanker tracker companies.
According to the Associated Press, prosecutors alleged the four ships were transporting 1.1 million barrels of gasoline from Iran to Venezuela. But the tankers never arrived at the South American country, and subsequently went missing. Two of the ships later reappeared near Cape Verde, a U.S. official said.
The U.S. Department of Justice officials declined to comment on the development.
The news was initially met with shock in Iran and elsewhere, as Iran had shipped gasoline to Venezuela at least twice before over the past few months.
The seizure of the four ships appears to be part of the United States' efforts to pressure Iran back to the negotiating table over its controversial nuclear and missile development programs, its destabilizing activities in the region and its human rights violations.
Iran had been sending fuel and goods to help the regime in Venezuela, an adversary of the United States, remain in power.
The Wall Street Journal quoted a US official saying "the vessels had been taken over without the use of military force," but did not further elaborate.
Previously, the U.S. took legal action in an unsuccessful attempt to take control of the Iranian oil tanker Grace-1 detained in Gibraltar. However, per the Wall Street Journal, a federal judge in Washington last week gave the U.S. the title to the Grace-1, saying that federal prosecutors had provided enough evidence that the tanker and its fuel were assets of a designated terrorist organization.
After the U.S. issued warnings to international shipping companies not to work with Iranian and Venezuelan oil and tanker companies, the two countries, under pressure from insurers, were pushed to work with the illegal market.
Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela, Hojat Soltani, pushed back on what would appear a victory for the U.S. sanctions campaign, tweeting on Thursday 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 wrote. “The terrorist #Trump cannot compensate for his humiliation and defeat by Iran using false propaganda."
According to AP, as commercial traders increasingly shun Venezuela, Venezuelan President 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 in Venezuela, even in the capital city of Caracas, which is normally spared such hardships.
Oil-rich Venezuela has not been able to meet its domestic need for gasoline as production has plunged to an unprecedented low in seven decades.
The United States has increased pressure on ship owners to abide by the U.S. sanctions against Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. Last May, U.S. officials seized a North Korean ship carrying coal. The advisory issued by the Trump administration in May also addresses dangerous ship-to-ship transfers and ships turning off tracking devices, with Iran having used both methods for months.
According to U.S. prosecutors, one of the companies involved in the shipment to Venezuela and the attempts to evade U.S. sanctions, the Avantgarde Group, was previously linked to the Revolutionary Guard, which has been. designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group, news sources said.
U.S. officials added that the ships were being escorted by an Iranian naval intelligence ship and four other Iranian vessels that left the flotilla after U.S. authorities established contact with the owner of the tankers.