US says it seized Iranian fuel from four Venezuela-bound tankers

The United States has seized fuel from four oil tankers reportedly carrying fuel shipments from Iran destined for Venezuela, the U.S. Justice Department said.

The fuel was allegedly shipped by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization.

The operation was part of the U.S. efforts to enforce its sanctions on both Iran and Venezuela.

A seizure order for the cargo from all four vessels was issued by U.S. District Court Judge Jeb Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The four vessels include M/T Bella, M/T Bering, M/T Pandi and M/T Luna, linked to Greek shipping companies as owners.

The Greek companies linked to the vessels in question are IMS SA, Bandit Shipping Co, Palermo SA, Paladine Maritime Inc, Vienna Ltd, and Rifia Shipping Co.

Acting on the seizure order, the U.S. with the assistance of foreign partners confiscated the cargo from all four vessels, totaling approximately 1.116 million barrels of petroleum, which is now in U.S. custody.   

The operation was described as the largest-ever seizure of fuel shipments from Iran. 

“Iran is not supposed to be doing that. And so we did — we seized the tankers, and we’re moving them, and moved, to Houston,” President of the United States, Donald Trump, told a news conference on Friday.

Reuters reported that the seizure was only related to the cargo, not the vessels and that the fuel was transferred to other vessels so it could be shipped to the U.S.

“After enforcement of the U.S. forfeiture order, Iran’s navy forcibly boarded an unrelated ship in an apparent attempt to recover the seized petroleum, but was unsuccessful,” the Justice Department said.

  U.S. Central Command published a video of the Iranian operation, as shown below:  

Iran has denounced the claims, describing the seizure as piracy.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said in a tweet the fuel was not Iran’s.

The tensions between the U.S. and Iran continue to heat up on the back of the United Nations Security Council’s vote to reject the bid by the United States to extend a global arms embargo on Iran, which is due to expire on October 18th.

The U.S. will allegedly resume with a tactic to enforce the “snap back” mechanism from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which allows any of the parties to the deal to reinstate sanctions against Iran.

Commenting on the latest developments, maritime security firm Dryad Global said US and Saudi-flagged vessels, or vessels which carry US/Saudi interests, and vessels perceived by Iran to be complicit with either state in working against Iranian interests are facing an elevated and persistent risk within the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman during times of increased geopolitical tension.

Vessels carrying US-related cargo or vessels linked to the Greek companies involved in the case are believed to be at risk of being detained or harassed by IRGC(N) or Iranian Navy assets within the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz or Gulf of Oman in what is deemed as ‘tit for tat actions’. 

The willingness of the vessels to allow Iranian cargoes to be transferred to the US has almost certainly resulted in the attempted detention of the MT Wila which is owned by the same owners as the MT’s Bering and Pandi. 

“Both IRGC(N) and Iranian Navy are known to conduct bridge to bridge VHF calls often with unsolicited and unwarranted enquiries concerning crew, cargo, and destination. Vessels are reminded to report all suspicious or threatening activity against any merchant vessels to UKMTO,” Dryad said.

“All vessels transiting the region are encouraged to be familiar with IMSC Bridge Cards and procedures for dealing with any attempt by another vessel to impede safe navigation and attempt to deviate the vessel from international waters.”

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