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Iran gasoline to Venezuela: US prosecutors seek court order to seize shipments

Court filing by US government calls for forfeiture of four Venezuela-bound vessels carrying Iranian fuel
Ship with Iranian gasoline arrives in Venezuela on 25 May (MINCI/AFP)
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Washington

US prosecutors are seeking the approval of a federal court to seize four tankers sailing towards Venezuela with gasoline supplied by Iran, the latest attempt to disrupt ever-closer trade ties between the two heavily sanctioned anti-US allies.

In a court filing submitted on Wednesday, US Attorney for the District of Columbia Zia Faruqui alleged that Iran has been trying to obscure the origin of its oil products to evade US sanctions through an elaborate scheme involving firms based in the United Arab Emirates.

The lawsuit seeks the forfeiture of gasoline on four Venezuela-bound ships linked to Mahmoud Madanipour, a businessman whom the US government says has ties to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which President Donald Trump last year designated as a terrorist group.

The lawsuit cites a US statute that gives the federal district court in Washington the authority to authorise the seizure of property located outside the country that is "subject to forfeiture under the laws of the United States".

The complaint does not specify the current location of the four ships - the Bella, the Bering, the Pandi, and the Luna - but it says they "are in the process of transporting Iranian gasoline (i.e., the Defendant Properties) to Venezuela."

The complaint says the IRGC has a "dominant presence" in the Iranian economy, including the oil industry.

"The profits from these activities support the IRGC’s full range of nefarious activities, including the proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery, support for terrorism, and a variety of human rights abuses, at home and abroad," it reads.

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The Trump administration has been piling sanctions on the economies of both Tehran and Caracas.

In March, Washington indicted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on narcoterrorism charges and offered $15m for information leading to his capture. Early in 2019, the White House recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of the country. 

Iran's close ties to Venezuela date back to the early 2000s when the South American country's relationship with the United States began deteriorating under socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

After Chavez's death in 2013, the alliance with Iran continued under his successor, Maduro. 

Despite facing its own economic problems and American sanctions, Iran has been delivering fuel to Venezuela - against US protests - to mitigate shortages in the South American country.

Iran succeeded in sending five oil tankers to Venezuela last month despite US objections. Leaders in both countries have struck a defiant tone about protecting what they call their "free trade rights". Venezuelan armed forces have escorted the tankers through the South American country's territorial waters.

It is not clear what US agency would carry out the seizure of the Iranian gasoline if approval is granted by the court. A Pentagon spokesperson said in May that there were no known military plans to intercept the shipments.

Earlier this year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed that there would be "trouble" for US forces if they caused problems for ships carrying Iranian gasoline to Venezuela.