Four tankers carrying Iranian fuel cargoes covered by a U.S. warrant for seizure are sailing to the United States after talks between U.S. authorities and the ship owners, a U.S. government source and a shipping source said on Thursday.
Iran had planned to transport the gasoline to Venezuela, a supply line that both Tehran and Caracas have flaunted in defiance of U.S. sanctions. Washington has imposed sanctions on both countries to choke oil exports and deprive them of their main source of revenue.
Iranian action against another ship on Wednesday in the Gulf was in retaliation against the Greek owner of some of the vessels, the government source and two shipping sources said.
U.S. prosecutors filed a lawsuit in July to seize the gasoline aboard the four tankers, and a judge subsequently issued a warrant for seizure. The fuel cannot be seized until the tankers enter U.S. territorial waters.
The owners of the four vessels agreed to have them sail to the United States after talks with the U.S. government, the sources said. The warrant only covers the cargoes aboard the Liberia-flagged Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna, not the vessels.
The U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and State Department declined to comment on Thursday. Neither Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA nor Venezuela’s oil or information ministries responded to requests for comment.
The United States has previously threatened to impose sanctions on any shipowners and vessels involved in oil trade with Venezuela and Iran.
The four tankers are owned and managed by companies controlled by Greece-based firms Vienna LTD and Palermo SA. The fifth vessel, the Wila, which was boarded by Iranian forces near the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday, is owned by Bandit Shipping and controlled by Greece-based IMS SA.
Vienna, Palermo and IMS did not immediately reply to requests for comment sent outside normal office hours.
News of the U.S. seizure of the Iranian cargoes was first reported on Thursday by the Wall Street Journal.
Tensions between Iran and the United States increased last year following a series of incidents involving shipping in and near the Middle East Gulf.
In July 2019, Iran briefly seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf after Britain seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1, accused of violating sanctions on Syria.
The United States had issued a warrant for the vessel and Brian Hook, then the State Department’s top Iran official, sent emails to its captain saying the Trump administration was offering him several million dollars to steer the tanker to a country that would impound it on behalf of Washington. The attempt failed, and the oil was eventually sold to the Assad government in Syria.
(Reporting by Jonathan Saul and Marianna Parraga; Writing by Simon Webb; Editing by Daniel Wallis)