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US seized 4 Iranian fuel tankers ( Luna, Pandy, Bering and Bella) destined for Venezuela - WSJ

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The Wall Street Journal quoted U.S. officials as saying that the American government for the first time seized ships it said were transporting Iranian fuel in violation of the sanctions imposed by the administration of President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration has seized the cargo of four tankers it was targeting for transporting Iranian fuel to Venezuela, U.S. officials said Thursday, as it steps up its campaign of maximum pressure against the two heavily sanctioned allies.

A senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that no military force was used in the seizures and that the ships weren’t physically confiscated. Rather, U.S. officials threatened ship owners, insurers and captains with sanction to force them to hand over their cargo, which now becomes U.S. property, the official said.

Last month, U.S. prosecutors filed a lawsuit over the seizure of the gasoline carried by four tankers that Iran is trying to ship to Venezuela, in the latest attempt by the Trump administration to increase economic pressure on the two countries, according to Reuters.

The lawsuit aims to stem the flow of oil sales revenue to Iran, which Washington has imposed sanctions over its nuclear program, ballistic missiles and influence across the Middle East.

The Wall Street Journal, citing officials, said the four ships, the Luna, Pandy, Bering and Bella, have been stopped on the high seas in recent days and are now on their way to Houston.

Iran had sent six oil tankers to Venezuela, expressing its willingness to continue its oil shipments to the Latin American country, if Caracas requested more.

A spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said: “Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif confirmed that Tehran is ready to continue its oil shipments to Venezuela if Caracas requests more.”

The Iranian authorities also announced that their institutions would export oil derivatives to several countries in Asia and Africa, including Arab and Gulf countries.

Prosecutors alleged the four ships were transporting to Venezuela 1.1 million barrels of gasoline. But the tankers never arrived at the South American country and then went missing. Two of the ships later reappeared near Cape Verde, a second U.S. official said.

According to WSJ, Both officials agreed to discuss the sensitive diplomatic and judicial offensive only if granted anonymity.

Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela, Hojad Soltani, pushed back on what would appear a victory for the U.S. sanctions campaign, saying Thursday on Twitter that neither the ships nor their owners were Iranian.

“This is another lie and act of psychological warfare perpetrated by the U.S. propaganda machine,” Soltani said. “The terrorist #Trump cannot compensate for his humiliation and defeat by Iran using false propaganda.”

It is not clear where the vessels — the Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna — or their cargoes currently are. But the ship captains weeks ago turned off their tracking devices to hide their locations, said Russ Dallen, a Miami-based partner at brokerage Caracas Capital Markets, who follows ship movements.

The Bering went dark on May 11 in the Mediterranean near Greece and has not turned on its transponder since, while the Bella did the same July 2 in the Philippines, Dallen said. The Luna and Pandi were last spotted when they were together in the Gulf of Oman on July 10 when the U.S. seizure order came. Shipping data shows that the Pandi, which also goes by Andy, is reporting that it has been “broken up,” or sold as scrap, Dallen said.

As commercial traders increasingly shun Venezuela, Nicol├ís Maduro’s socialist government has been increasingly turning to Iran.

In May, Maduro celebrated the arrival of five Iranian tankers delivering badly needed fuel to alleviate shortages that have led to days-long gas lines even in the capital, Caracas, which is normally spared such hardships.

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