US prosecutors late on Wednesday filed a lawsuit to seize the gasoline aboard four tankers that Iran is shipping to Venezuela, the latest attempt by the Trump administration to increase economic pressure on the two US foes, Reuters reports.
The government of Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro has flaunted the tankers, which departed last month, to show it remains unbowed by US pressure. The United States has been pressing for Maduro's ouster with a campaign of diplomatic and punitive measures, including sanctions on state oil company PDVSA.
Gasoline shortages in Venezuela, like Iran a member of OPEC, have grown acute due to the US sanctions, and the country has undergone an economic collapse. Still, Maduro has held on, and the failure to unseat him has been source of frustration for US President Donald Trump, some American officials have said privately.
In the civil-forfeiture complaint, the federal prosecutors aim to stop delivery of Iranian gasoline aboard the Liberia-flagged Bella and the Bering, and the Pandi and the Luna, according to the lawsuit, first reported in the Wall Street Journal. The suit, filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks to deter future deliveries.
US District Judge James Boasberg issued a warrant for the seizure of the more than 1.1 million barrels of gasoline in the four tankers, based on probable cause that the fuel is forfeitable, the Justice Department said on Thursday.
The lawsuit also aims to stop the flow of revenues from petroleum sales to Iran, which Washington has sanctioned over its nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and influence across the Middle East. Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
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, or IRGC, 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 ships carrying Iranian gasoline engaged in ship-to-ship transfers to evade sanctions, the lawsuit said. The Pandi, for example, engaged in such a transfer in Port Khalid in UAE to load the Iranian gasoline surreptitiously, it said.
It was not immediately clear whether or how the Trump administration would move to seize the gasoline. The US government must prove the fuel is forfeitable under law in a civil proceeding for it to seize it permanently.
Last year the Trump administration tried to stop a tanker carrying Iranian oil called the Adrian Darya, formerly known as Grace 1, by blacklisting it and issuing a warrant for the seizure of the crude. The oil was eventually delivered to Syria.