The United States has seized the cargo of four Iranian fuel tankers transporting supplies to Venezuela, continuing to step up its campaign of maximum pressure on Iran and sanctions on the two allied countries.
The move was announced by US officials yesterday who told the Associated Press that the ships were not physically confiscated and that no military force was used in their seizures. Instead, the US government threatened the owners, insurers, and captains of the ships with sanctions in order to pressure them to give up their cargo, which has now reportedly become property of the US.
Prior to the announcement by the officials, who requested to remain anonymous, it was reported by prosecutors that the four ships were transporting 1.1 million barrels of fuel to Venezuela. The tankers, however, failed to arrive at the South American nation and instead went missing, before two of them later reappeared near Cape Verde.
Despite the seriousness of the move, Iranian Ambassador to Venezuela Hajad Soltani dismissed the idea that it was a success for US sanctions, stating that neither the ships nor their owners were actually Iranian.
Writing on Twitter yesterday, Soltani alleged that "This is another lie and act of psychological warfare perpetrated by the US propaganda machine. The terrorist #Trump cannot compensate for his humiliation and defeat by Iran using false propaganda."
It remains unclear where the ships – the Bella, Bering, Pandi, and Luna – are currently located, along with their cargo, mainly because their captains turned off their tracking devices over the past few months in order to hide their whereabouts.
The Bering, for example, disappeared off the map on 11 May near Greece in the Mediterranean. The Bella went dark on 2 July around the Phillipines, while both the Pandi and Luna were last seen together in the Gulf of Oman on 10 July.
Iran's transport of fuel to Venezuela, reportedly organised by Iranian businessman Mahmoud Madanipour and linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), was hailed a success back in May when Iranian tankers arrived at the South American country to deliver the petrol.
Many speculated on the action the US would take in response to the two countries' defiance of its sanctions, and it was later revealed that Iran was ready to strike US vessels if they attempted to stop those tankers.
This time, however, the US' stance was seemingly more serious, with prosecutors having filed a lawsuit on 1 July to seize the tankers en route to their latest delivery to Venezuela.