WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors late on Wednesday filed a lawsuit to seize the gasoline aboard four tankers that Iran is shipping to Venezuela, the latest attempt by the Trump administration to increase economic pressure on the two U.S. foes.
The government of Venezuelan socialist President Nicolas Maduro has flaunted the tankers, which departed last month, to show it remains unbowed by U.S. pressure. The United States, has been pressing for Maduro’s ouster with a campaign of diplomatic and punitive measures, including sanctions on state oil company PDVSA.
Gasoline shortages in Venezuela, like Iran a member of OPEC, have grown acute due to the U.S. sanctions, and the country has undergone an economic collapse. Still, Maduro has held on, and the failure to unseat him has been source of frustration for U.S. President Donald Trump, some American officials have said privately.
In the civil-forfeiture complaint, the federal prosecutors aim to stop delivery of Iranian gasoline aboard the Liberia-flagged Bella and the Bering, and the Pandi and the Luna, according to the lawsuit, first reported in the Wall Street Journal. It also seeks to deter future deliveries.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, also aims to stop the flow of revenues from petroleum 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.
Zia Faruqui and two other assistant U.S. attorneys allege in the lawsuit that Iranian businessman Mahmoud Madanipour, affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, helped arrange the shipments by changing documents about the tankers to evade U.S. sanctions.
The lawsuit says that since September 2018, the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force has moved oil through a sanctioned shipping network involving dozens of ship managers, vessels and facilitators.
Profits from the shipments support the "full range of nefarious activities, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, support for terrorism, and a variety of human rights abuses, at home and abroad," the lawsuit said.
The ships carrying Iranian gasoline engaged in ship-to-ship transfers to evade sanctions, the lawsuit said. The Pandi, for example, engaged in such a transfer in Port Khalid in UAE to load the Iranian gasoline surreptitiously, it said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and Luc Cohen in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)