US prosecutors have filed a lawsuit to seize the petrol aboard four tankers that Iran is trying to ship to Venezuela, the latest attempt by the Trump administration to increase economic pressure on the two US foes.
The government of Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro has flaunted the fuel supply to show it remains unbowed by US pressure. Washington has been pressing for Maduro’s ouster with diplomatic and punitive measures, including sanctions on state oil company PDVSA.
The lawsuit, filed late on Wednesday in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, was followed on Thursday by a warrant issued by US District Judge James Boasberg for the seizure of the more than 1.1 million barrels of petrol in the four vessels.
Legal sources said the petrol could likely only be seized by US authorities if the tankers enter US territorial waters. But they said the actions could help push other countries to co-operate in seizing the fuel.
Petrol shortages in Venezuela, like Iran a member of OPEC, have grown acute due to US sanctions and the country has undergone an economic collapse. Still, Maduro has held on.
In the civil-forfeiture complaint, US federal prosecutors aim to stop delivery of Iranian petrol aboard the Liberia-flagged Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna, according to the lawsuit, first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Boasberg issued the warrant for the seizure of the petrol in the tankers based on probable cause that the fuel is forfeitable, the Justice Department said.
The lawsuit also aims to stop the flow of revenues from oil sales to Iran, which Washington has sanctioned over its nuclear program, ballistic missiles and influence across the Middle East. Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.