US Commits an Act of “Soft Piracy”; Seizes Oil Tankers Bound for Venezuela

August 15th, 2020 - by Joshua Goodman / The Associated Press & Scott Neuman/ National Public Radio

M/T Bella’s cargo has been seized as it was carrying petroleum from Iran to Venezuela, the US Department of Justice says.

US Seizes Iranian Oil from Four Tankers en Route to Venezuela

Joshua Goodman / The Associated Press

(August 13, 2020) — The Trump administration has seized the cargo of four tankers it was targeting for transporting Iranian fuel to Venezuela, US officials said Thursday, as it steps up its campaign of maximum pressure against the two heavily sanctioned allies.

Last month, federal prosecutors in Washington filed a civil forfeiture complaint alleging that the sale was arranged by a businessman with ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, a US-designated foreign terrorist organization. At the time, sanctions experts thought it would be impossible to enforce the US court order in international waters.

A senior US official told The Associated Press that no military force was used in the seizures and that the ships weren’t physically confiscated. Rather, US officials threatened ship owners, insurers and captains with sanction to force them to hand over their cargo, which now becomes US property, the official said.

It is not clear where the vessels or their cargoes currently are. [See update below — EAW]

Prosecutors alleged the four ships were transporting to Venezuela 1.1 million barrels of gasoline. But the tankers — the Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna — never arrived at the South American country and then went missing. Two of the ships later reappeared near Cape Verde, a second US official said.

Both officials agreed to discuss the sensitive diplomatic and judicial offensive only if granted anonymity.

Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela, Hojad Soltani, pushed back on what would appear a victory for the US sanctions campaign, saying Thursday on Twitter that neither the ships nor their owners were Iranian.

“This is another lie and act of psychological warfare perpetrated by the US propaganda machine,” Soltani said. “The terrorist #Trump cannot compensate for his humiliation and defeat by Iran using false propaganda.”

US Seizes Iranian Fuel From 4 Tankers Bound For Venezuela

Scott Neuman/ National Public Radio

(August 14, 2020)  — The US has seized Iranian petroleum bound for Venezuela aboard four tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, enforcing a forfeiture order aimed at both Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Caracas government, the Justice Department announced Friday. 

Roughly 1.116 million barrels of fuel was confiscated from the foreign-flagged vessels M/T Bella, M/T Bering, M/T Pandi and M/T Luna, a Justice Department statement said, adding that the seizure took place “with the assistance of foreign partners.”

The cargo was intercepted on Wednesday, under a warrant issued by a US District Court over a July 2 complaint seeking the forfeiture of all petroleum products aboard the vessels. The property is now in US custody, the Justice Department said.

According to The Associated Press, quoting unnamed US officials, no military force was used in the seizure of the cargo, and none of the ships was physically impounded. Instead, US officials threatened ship owners, insurers and captains with sanctions to force them to hand over their cargo, the AP reported.

In a statement Friday, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus described the cargo as gasoline and said if the forfeiture is successful in US courts, the proceeds could “support the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund instead of those engaging in terrorism, like the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps].”

It wasn’t clear where the vessels, all four Liberian-flagged, are currently located, as none appears to have transmitted collision-avoidance beacons in several weeks, according to the site

Last year, the Trump administration declared Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to be a terrorist organization. It has also stepped up pressure on the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Although Venezuela controls one of the world’s largest crude reserves, its production of refined gasoline falls short of even its domestic needs. Amid stiff US sanctions, commercial traders have also increasingly shunned Venezuela, prompting it to turn to Iran, which is also the subject of sanctions from Washington.

“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.”

In a tweet, Hojat Soltani, Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela, rejected the US claim of seizing the four tankers.

“Yet another lie and psychological warfare by the US 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.

The US and several international powers, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, banded together to protect international shipping in and around the Gulf of Oman last year following alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers there. It was not immediately clear which “foreign partners” may have been involved in the US seizure.

The M/T Pandi was one of the four foreign-flagged vessels that had cargo seized, the Justice Department says. Department of Justice

The action represents the US government’s largest seizure of fuel shipments from Iran, the Justice Department said.

“After enforcement of the US forfeiture order, Iran’s navy forcibly boarded an unrelated ship in an apparent attempt to recover the seized petroleum, but was unsuccessful,” according to US Central Command, which posted a video on Thursday of what the United States is calling a failed Iranian operation.

Later Friday, the US suffered a setback in its efforts to get international support for part of its campaign to isolate Iran. The UN Security Council voted down a US proposal to extend an embargo on weapons sales to Iran that has been in place since 2007. Among the 15 members of the council, only the Dominican Republic voted with the US. The embargo is set to expire in October.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US would move now to have the UN reimpose sanctions on Iran that were lifted in the 2015 nuclear deal. But the US has withdrawn from that deal and Russia and China, along with US allies like France and Germany, seek to maintain it.

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