The United States has seized four tankers en route from Iran to Venezuela in what the Justice Department says is the government’s largest-ever seizure of fuel shipments from Iran.
The Justice Department said on August 14 that U.S. law enforcement seized the cargo on the tankers -- approximately 1.116 million barrels of petroleum -- saying it was tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The department described the seizure as “the successful disruption of a multimillion dollar fuel shipment” by the IRGC that was bound for Venezuela.
“With the assistance of foreign partners, this seized property is now in U.S. custody,” the Justice Department said in a news release.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on August 14 that the tankers were being moved to Houston, Texas.
“Iran is not supposed to be doing that,” Trump said, speaking at a White House briefing.
The seizure follows a complaint filed July 1 by the Justice Department in the U.S. District Court in Washington seeking forfeiture of all the “petroleum-product cargo” aboard the tankers Bella, Bering, Pandi, and Luna.
The complaint claimed the sale was arranged by an Iranian businessman with ties to the IRGC, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.
Since September 2018, the IRGC's elite Quds Force has moved oil in violation of U.S. sanctions through a shipping network involving dozens of ship managers, vessels, and facilitators, according to the July 1 complaint.
The Justice Department said the IRGC arranges shipments for Venezuela using offshore front companies and ship-to-ship transfers to avoid sanctions on Iran.
The complaint said profits from the sale of the fuel “support the IRGC's 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."
After the tankers were seized, 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 on August 13 published a video of the operation.
Sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro's regime have forced Venezuela to turn to allies such as Iran to alleviate a gasoline shortage. Oil production in Venezuela has fallen to roughly a quarter of its 2008 level. The South American country’s economy has been devastated by six years of recession.