Iranian tanker Fortune was one of five Iranian vessels whose captains were sanctioned by the United States for shipping gasoline to Venezuela. Photo courtesy Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro/Twitter
July 3 (UPI) -- As the United States continues to increase pressure on two adversarial nations, a U.S. judge issued a warrant for the seizure of more than 1 million barrels of gasoline being shipped by four Iranian tankers to Venezuela.
U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg signed the warrant Thursday after authorities filed a complaint the night before in the District of Columbia alleging nearly 1.2 million barrels of Persian gasoline on the Bella, the Bering, the Pandi and the Luna are subject to forfeiture as the sale of their cargo is intended to benefit sanctioned Iranian entities, specifically the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The complaint alleges the tankers' cargo is "a source of influence" for the IRGC, which President Donald Trump designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in April of 2019.
"The profits from these activities support the IRGC's 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 complaint said.
The ships were discovered during an investigation by U.S. authorities through the use of a series of confidential informants who revealed that the oil's sale to Venezuela was arranged through a complicated scheme involving multiple parties orchestrated by Iranian businessman Mahmoud Madanipour who is affiliated with the IRGC.
The gasoline, the authorities said, was placed on the vessels through ship-to-ship transfers in order to evade detection and sanctions.
According to the complaint, an unnamed co-conspirator texted Madanipour that there have been issues with the Bella and the Bering due to the U.S. sanctions.
"The ship owner doesn't want to go because of the American threat, but we want him to go, and we even agreed we will also buy the ship," the co-conspirator told Madanipour, according to the complaint.
Alireza Miryousefi, the Iranian Mission to the United States, lambasted the warrant as "an act of piracy, pure & simple."
"This is a direct threat to international peace and security and in contravention of international law, including the U.N. Charter," he said via Twitter.
The United States has been applying pressure on the Middle Eastern country since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era multinational nuclear accord aimed at preventing Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon in May 2018 calling it "defective at its core."
Since then, he has repeatedly imposed sanctions against Iran in an attempt to force to back to the negotiating table on a new deal. However, Iran retaliated by reneging on some of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action further deteriorating relations between Tehran and the West.
Late last month, Iranian prosecutors issued arrest warrants for Trump and 35 other American officials connected to the January killing of Qassem Soleimani, the former leader of the IRGC.
Trump ordered his assassination in retaliation to protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
The United States has been targeting Iran's oil industry and last week sanctioned the Iranian captains of five tankers for shipping 1.5 million barrels of Iranian gasoline to Venezuela in support of the South American nation's embattled president, Nicolas Maduro.
The first of those five ships, the Fortune, arrived in Venezuela late May to the celebration of Maduro.
"In times where the supremacist empire seeks to impose its rule by force, only the brotherhood of free peoples will save us," Maduro said via Twitter, posting pictures of the Persian tanker.
Maduro -- who has been under increasing U.S pressure to step down since his 2018 re-election was deemed illegitimate early last year -- has clung to power due to assistance from China, Cuba, Russia and Iran, U.S. authorities have said.
The attempts to seize the ships also occur as the United States is urging the U.N. Security Council to extend an arms embargo on Iran, warning if it is allowed to expire Tehran could become a"rouge weapons dealer," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this week.