Updated at 2 p.m. ET
The U.S. has seized Iranian petroleum bound for Venezuela aboard four tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, enforcing a forfeiture order aimed at both Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Caracas government, the Justice Department announced Friday.
Roughly 1.116 million barrels of fuel was confiscated from the foreign-flagged vessels M/T Bella, M/T Bering, M/T Pandi and M/T Luna, a Justice Department statement said, adding that the seizure took place “with the assistance of foreign partners.”
The cargo was intercepted on Wednesday, acting on a warrant issued by a U.S. District Court over a July 2 complaint seeking the forfeiture of all petroleum products aboard the vessels. The property is now in U.S. custody, the Justice Department said.
According to The Associated Press, quoting unnamed U.S. officials, no military force was used in the seizure of the cargo, and none of the ships was physically impounded. Instead, U.S. officials threatened ship owners, insurers and captains with sanctions to force them to hand over their cargo, the AP reported.
In a statement Friday, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus described the cargo as gasoline and said if the forfeiture is successful in U.S. courts, the proceeds could “support the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund instead of those engaging in terrorism, like the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps].”
It wasn’t clear where the vessels, all four Liberian-flagged, are currently located, as none appears to have transmitted collision-avoidance beacons in several weeks, according to the site MarineTraffic.com.
Last year, the Trump administration declared Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to be a terrorist organization. It has also stepped up pressure on the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Although Venezuela controls one of the world’s largest crude reserves, its production of refined gasoline falls short of even its domestic needs. Amid stiff U.S. sanctions, commercial traders have also increasingly shunned Venezuela, prompting it to turn to Iran, which is also the subject of sanctions from Washington.
“We are seeing more and more global shipping fleets avoiding the Iran-Venezuela trade due to our sanctions implementation and enforcement efforts,” the State Department’s Ortagus said. “The United States remains committed to our maximum pressure campaigns against the Iranian and Maduro regimes.”
In a tweet, Hojat Soltani, Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela, rejected as “fake news” the U.S. claim of seizing the four tankers.
“Yet another lie and psychological warfare by the US propaganda machine. The tankers are neither Iranians, nor their owners or flags have anything to do with Iran. The terrorist Trump just wants to cover up the humiliation of his failure against the great nation of Iran by scattering false propaganda,” the ambassador wrote.
The U.S. and several international powers, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, banded together to protect international shipping in and around the Gulf of Oman last year following alleged Iranian attacks on oil tankers there. It was not immediately clear which “foreign partners” may have been involved in the U.S. seizure.
The action represents the U.S. government’s largest seizure of fuel shipments from Iran, the Justice Department said.
“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,” according to U.S. Central Command, which posted a video on Thursday of what the United States is calling a failed Iranian operation.
The petroleum seizure comes as the U.N. Security Council has been holding tense discussions over a proposed U.S. extension of a 2015 arms embargo against Iran, which is due to expire in October. Both China and Russia oppose the extension.