WASHINGTON, DC - The U.S. government says four oil tankers have been boarded and their cargo, 1.116 million barrels of Iranian fuel destined for Venezuela, has been seized.
It is understood the seizure took place in the Gulf of Oman.
According to the U.S. Justice Department it is the largest seizure in U.S. history of fuel shipments from Iran.
The confiscation, the department said, followed a filing early last month, on 2 July 2020, of an order for Iran to forfeit all petroleum-product cargo aboard four foreign-flagged oil tankers, Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna (pictured below).
A seizure order for the cargo from all four vessels was subsequently issued by U.S. District Court Judge Jeb Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The government said Friday it has successfully executed the seizure order and confiscated the cargo from all four vessels, totaling approximately 1.116 million barrels of petroleum. "This seized property is now in U.S. custody," the justice department said.
Iran however has denied the cargo has been seized. The country's ambassador to Venezuela, Hojjat Soltani said the U.S. has not seized the cargo, and was involved in a propaganda exercise. "Neither are the vessels Iranian, nor have their owners or flags anything to do with Iran," the ambassador said.
An independent check has established the Bella is in fact a Liberian vessel, built some 20 years ago. The ship is sailing under the flag of Liberia, MarineTraffic confirmed. Bering is a ship built in Croatia 22 years ago and which also flies under the flag of Liberia, it's home port being Monrovia, according to Baltic Shipping. Pandi was built 24 year years ago, and it too is flying under the Liberian flag, MarineTraffic confirms. Luna too is registered in Liberia, having been built 20 years ago, MarineTraffic says. All four ships are believed to be Greek-owned.
It should be stressed that while numerous news reports have referred to 'four Iranian oil tankers,' the justice department statement did not say this, the statement referred to 'foreign-flagged' oil tankers.
It is unclear where the oil cargo is or where it may be being transported to. It is also unclear where the four Liberian tankers are now. U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to be under the impression on Friday that they too were in U.S. custody and were on their way to Houston.
Asked about the claimed seizure at a press briefing at the White House late Friday, Mr Trump said: "We'll be announcing. We have four tankers. They are going to Houston, and they're there. We - they're not supposed to be doing that. 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."
It is also unclear how the fuel ended up in U.S. custody. Neither the U.S. Navy nor the U.S. Coast Guard took control of the ships, two U.S. defense officials confirmed to USNI News. USNI News said in a report Friday that it understands that at no time did U.S. officials take control of the ships.
The U.S. Justice department provides a clue. It says: "With the assistance of foreign partners, this seized property is now in U.S. custody."
The U.S. Justice Department says that after it enforced the forfeiture order, Iran's navy forcibly boarded an unrelated ship in an apparent attempt to recover the seized petroleum, but was unsuccessful.
The U.S. Central Command published a video of the claimed failed Iranian operation on Twitter.
A warrant for arrest and civil forfeiture complaint are merely allegations. The burden to prove forfeitability in a civil forfeiture proceeding is upon the U.S. government.
The U.S. government is saying the shipments were consigned by Iran's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization - in a bid to divert the proceeds of a sale of the confiscated shipments to the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund. When any party involved in a forfeiture has a connection to a state sponsor of terrorism, funds may in whole or in part be directed to the fund after the conclusion of the case. It is now up to the U.S. government to prove it was within it's rights in seizing the petroleum and that the IRGC played a role.