The United States seized four trucks loading Iranian fuel to Venezuela as it stepped up its campaign of maximum pressure against two heavily sanctioned allies, news reports said.
A senior U.S. official told the Associated Press news agency no military force was used in the seizures and the ships were not physically seized. Instead, US officials threatened shipowners, insurers and captains with sanctions to force them to hand over their cargo, which now becomes US property.
Prosecutors claimed the four ships were transporting 1.1 million barrels of gasoline to Venezuela. But the tanks never arrived in the South American country and then disappeared. Two of the boats later reappeared near Cape Verde, a second U.S. official said.
The two officials agreed to discuss the sensitive diplomatic and judicial offensive only if given anonymity.
Iran̵7;s ambassador to Venezuela said reports that Iranian tanks had been captured were “another lie and a psychological war” by the United States.
The first Iranian oil tanker reaches the waters of Venezuela
“The ships are not Iranian, and neither the owner nor its flag has anything to do with Iran,” Hojat Soltani said on Twitter in Spanish.
“This is another lie and act of psychological warfare waged by the US machine,” Soltani said. “#Trump terrorism can not compensate for its humiliation and loss to Iran by using false propaganda.”
It is not clear where the ships – Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna – are or their current cargoes, but ship captains weeks ago turned off their tracking devices to hide their locations, said Russ Dallen, a partner with center in Miami in brokerage Caracas Capital Markets, which tracks shipping movements.
Bering was obscured on May 11 in the Mediterranean near Greece and his transponder has not been turned on since, while Bella did the same July 2 in the Philippines, Dallen said. Luna and Pandi were last seen together when they were together in the Gulf of Oman on July 10 when the US seizure order came. Transport records show that Pandi, who is also passing by Andy, is reporting being “destroyed” or sold as scrap, Dallen said.
As traders increasingly avoid Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government has increasingly turned to Iran.
In May, Maduro celebrated the arrival of five Iranian tankers delivering the fuel needed to alleviate shortages that have led to gas lines over the days even in the capital Caracas, which has not normally been spared such hardships.
Despite falling in the world’s largest crude reserves, Venezuela does not produce enough refined gasoline in the country and has seen its crude production fall to its lowest level in seven decades in the midst of its economic crisis and the consequences of U.S. sanctions
The Trump administration has been increasing pressure on shipowners to adhere to sanctions against US adversaries such as Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. In May, it issued a piece of advice urging the global maritime industry to be on the lookout for tactics to avoid sanctions such as dangerous ship-to-ship transfers and the shutdown of mandatory escort equipment – both techniques used in shipments. latest oil from and from both Iran and Venezuela.
One of the companies involved in the shipment to Venezuela, the Avantgarde Group, was previously linked to the Revolutionary Guard and efforts to circumvent U.S. sanctions, according to prosecutors.
An Avantgarde associate facilitated the purchase for the Grace 1 Revolutionary Guard, a ship seized last year by Britain with US allegations that it was transporting oil to Syria. Iran denied the allegations and Grace 1 was eventually released. But the capture nevertheless caused an international stalemate in which Iran retaliated by capturing a British-flagged ship.
According to the property eviction complaint, an unnamed company in February billed Avantgarde for a $ 14.9 million cash payment for selling gasoline on board Pandi. However, a text message between Madanipour and an unnamed co-conspirator suggests the trip had encountered difficulties.
“The shipowner does not want to leave because of the American threat, but we want him to leave, and we even agreed to buy the ship,” according to the message, an excerpt of which was included in the complaint.