WASHINGTON: US prosecutors filed a lawsuit to seize the petrol aboard four tankers that Iran is trying to ship to Venezuela, the latest attempt by the Trump administration to increase economic pressure on the two countries.
Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro has flaunted the fuel supply to show it remains unbowed by US pressure. Washington has been pressing for Maduro’s removal with diplomatic and punitive measures, including sanctions on state oil company PDVSA.
The lawsuit, filed on Thursday in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, was followed yesterday by a warrant issued by US District Judge James Boasberg for the seizure of the more than 1.1 million barrels of petrol in the four vessels.
Legal sources said the petrol could likely only be seized by US authorities if the tankers enter US territorial waters. But they said the actions could help push other countries to co-operate in seizing the fuel.
Petrol shortages in Venezuela, like Iran a member of Opec, have grown acute due to US sanctions, and the country has undergone an economic collapse. Still, Maduro has held on.
In the civil-forfeiture complaint, US federal prosecutors aim to stop delivery of Iranian petrol aboard the Liberia-flagged Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna, according to the lawsuit.
Boasberg issued the warrant for the seizure of the petrol in the tankers based on probable cause that the fuel is forfeitable, the Justice Department said.
The lawsuit also aims to stop the flow of revenues from oil sales to Iran, which Washington has sanctioned over its nuclear programme, ballistic missiles, and influence across the Middle East.
Washington has increasingly been using civil forfeiture to stop illicit trade involving Iran and Venezuela, complementing its sanctions policy, according to Evelyn Sheehan and Beau Barnes at Kobre and Kim, a firm specialised in disputes and investigations.
“US policy towards both Venezuela and Iran is focused on denying both regimes access to foreign currency,” said Sheehan, who is also a former US Department of Justice prosecutor. “Intercepting petrol cargoes with civil forfeiture is a novel way to achieve that goal.”
Zia Faruqui and two other assistant US attorneys allege in the lawsuit that Iranian businessman Mahmoud Madanipour, affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, helped arrange the shipments by changing documents about the tankers to evade US sanctions.
The lawsuit says that since September 2018, the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force has moved oil through a sanctioned shipping network involving dozens of ship managers, vessels and facilitators.
Profits from the shipments support the “full range of nefarious activities, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, support for terrorism, and a variety of human rights abuses, at home and abroad,” the lawsuit said.
The vessels carrying Iranian petrol engaged in ship-to-ship transfers to evade sanctions. The Pandi, for example, engaged in such a transfer in Port Khalid in the UAE to load the Iranian petrol surreptitiously, the lawsuit said.