The Trump administration has seized the cargo from four tankers accused of transporting Iranian fuel to Venezuela. Meanwhile, Washington is ramping up its maximum pressure campaign against the Venezuelan and Iranian regimes.
Last month, the U.S. attorney’s office filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit to seize the Iranian tankers carrying fuel to Venezuela. This is the most recent move in the U.S. administration’s efforts to suffocate the resources helping maintain two of its main enemies in power.
At that moment, it was unclear whether U.S. authorities could seize the tankers. A similar U.S. effort to seize Iranian fuel was unsuccessful last year.
In a statement, the Department of Justice announced “the successful seizure of over one million barrels of Iranian gasoline intended for the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela. The proceeds from these shipments would have allegedly benefitted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
“Our diplomacy, led by Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, was able to both halt these shipments and assist the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security in executing a U.S. seizure order for the gasoline cargo issued on July 2, 2020,” the text continues.
An effective threat
All four ships – Luna, Pandi, Bering, and Bella – were intercepted at sea in recent days. They are now on route to Houston, authorities said. Senior Administration officials are expected to meet with the tankers in the coming days to coordinate the docking.
No military force was used in these operations and there was no physical seizure of the ships. Rather, the U.S. authorities threatened boat owners, insurers, and captains with sanctions, forcing them to give up their cargo. It now becomes U.S. property, a Washington government official was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
Last month, federal prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit. They alleged that the sale was organized by a businessman, Mahmoud Madanipour, with links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This group has been classified by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization.
At the time, sanction experts thought it would be impossible to enforce the U.S. judicial order in international waters.
The attorney general’s office assured that the four ships were transporting 1.1 million barrels of fuel to Venezuela. However, the tankers never made it to the South American country and later disappeared. Two of the ships reappeared later near Cabo Verde, according to another U.S. official.
The current location of the ships is still unclear. Weeks ago, the ships’ captains turned their tracking devices off, according to Russ Dallen, partner of Miami-based Caracas Capital Markets, which tracks the ships’ movements.
The Bering went dark on May 11 in the Mediterranean near Greece and has not turned its tracker on since. For its part, the Bella did the same on July 2 in the Philippines. The Luna and the Pandi were last seen together in the Gulf of Oman on July 10, when the U.S. forfeiture order came through, according to Allen.
Iranian ambassador in Venezuela Hojad Soltani dismissed this move, taking to Twitter to say that neither the ships or the owners were Iranian.
“Yet another lie and psychological warfare by the U.S. propaganda machine. The tankers are neither Iranians, nor their owners or flags have anything to do with Iran. The terrorist Trump just wants to cover up the humiliation of his failure against the great nation of Iran by scattering false propaganda,” the ambassador wrote.
According to the Department of Justice, following the forfeiture order “Iran’s Navy forcibly boarded an unrelated ship in an apparent attempt to recover the seized petroleum, but was unsuccessful.”
The images published in the department’s Twitter account were taken by the Central Command, the U.S. army group supervising the armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and showed the failed Iranian operation.
“We are seeing more and more global shipping fleets avoiding the Iran-Venezuela trade due to our sanctions implementation and enforcement efforts,” the State Department’s Ortagus said. “The United States remains committed to our maximum pressure campaigns against the Iranian and Maduro regimes.”
Cornering Nicolas Maduro
As international traders increasingly avoid Venezuela, the socialist regime of Nicolas Maduro has grown closer to Iran.
In May, the dictator celebrated the arrival of five oil tankers carrying much-needed Iranian fuel to alleviate the shortage that sparked multi-day queues at gas stations; including in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, which is normally spared from such difficulties.
Despite resting on the world’s largest crude reserves, Venezuela does not produce enough refined gasoline. The country has seen its overall crude production drop to the lowest level in more than seven decades. This crisis came with the collapse of its oil industry, as a consequence of 20 years of politicization and corruption.
The Trump administration has been increasing pressure on ship owners to comply with sanctions against U.S. adversaries such as Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea.
In May, it issued a notice urging the global maritime industry to be vigilant about tactics to evade sanctions. For instance, ship-to-ship transfers and the shutdown of mandatory tracking devices. Iran and Venezuela have used both techniques in their recent oil and gasoline deliveries.
A peaceful end to the crisis
Cutting Iran’s fuel supplies to Venezuela is one of the many actions the international community is taking to force Nicolas Maduro’s exit from power. He is accused of using illegal and unconstitutional means to retain his position as president, committing systematic human rights violations, and blocking a peaceful and democratic end to the country’s severe economic, political, and social crisis.
In a new attempt to unravel the situation, a group of 28 countries, including the United States, European Union, and several members of the Lima Group, issued a joint statement on Friday calling for support for Venezuela’s democratic transition.
The text highlights the need to support a process to establish an inclusive transition government “that leads the country to free and fair presidential elections as soon as possible.”
It adds this process should enable the National Assembly (Parliament) to fully meet its functions. It also asks to reestablish the “independence” of the Supreme Court of Justice and the National Electoral Council.
Finally, the text reiterates the willingness of countries that maintain economic sanctions against Venezuela to discuss lifting these measures.
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