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Owners of oil tankers seized by US deny they were destined for Venezuela

Mobin International, Oman Fuel and Sohar Fuel claim in lawsuit that 1.2 million barrel oil shipment seized last month was headed for Trinidad, not Caracas
Iranian-flagged oil tanker Fortune docked at El Palito refinery after its arrival in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, on 25 May (AFP/File photo)

The owners of four oil tankers confiscated by the US last month have filed a lawsuit against the seizure, claiming that their cargo was not travelling to Venezuela, a state sanctioned by the US. 

Washington seized more than 1.2 million barrels of alleged Iranian petroleum in mid-August, accusing the tankers carrying the load of heading to crisis-wracked Venezuela, as it stepped up its maximum pressure campaign against the two heavily sanctioned countries. 

In the suit, which was filed by three Gulf companies in a Washington, DC, district court on Tuesday, the owners of the tankers said they had lost business because of the seizure and insisted that the cargo was not headed to Caracas. 

UAE-based Mobin International, owned by Samika Kohli, asserted it was the owner of the cargo aboard the Bella and Bering tankers. Oman Fuel, registered in the UK and owned by Mahmoud Madanipour, claimed the cargo on the Pandi and Luna, while Oman-registered Sohar Fuel claimed part of the Luna cargo.

The US has previously accused Iranian oil trader Madanipour, who allegedly has links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of masterminding the alleged Venezuela oil shipments by using offshore front companies and ship-to-ship transfers to get around sanctions on Iran.

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Last week the US Justice Department announced that it had seized the websites of all three companies, calling them "front companies" for the IRGC, which is designated as a foreign terrorist organisation in the US. 

The seized oil is reportedly valued at around $40m. At the time of confiscation, the Justice Department said it was the "largest-ever seizure of fuel shipments from Iran".

In Tuesday's filing, the companies said the cargoes, sold to UAE-based Citi Energy FZC, were headed to Trinidad, adding that they had agreed on payment on delivery, which meant that they did not get paid for the shipments.

"At the time they were seized, the Defendant Properties were destined for Trinidad for sale to customers in Peru and Colombia," the companies wrote in the filing.

"Claimants Mobin, Oman Fuel, and Sohar Fuel retain a financial stake in those agreements and have immediate right to title, possession, and control of the Defendant Properties," the companies added.

At the time of the seizure, Hojad Soltani, Iran's ambassador to Venezuela, called US President Donald Trump a "terrorist" and denied the tankers were Iranian, saying the US reports were "yet another lie and psychological warfare". 

"The ships are not Iranian, and neither the owner nor its flag has anything to do with Iran," Soltani said on Twitter.

Tensions at sea

In its statement last month, the Justice Department also accused Iran of "forcibly" boarding an unrelated ship after the four tankers were seized, "in an apparent attempt to recover the seized petroleum". 

US military officials said that the incident took place in the Gulf of Oman, with Iran using a helicopter and two ships to take over the vessel, a Liberian-flagged oil and chemicals tanker, for several hours.

The waters where the ship was boarded, near the Strait of Hormuz, are a bottleneck for a third of the world's seaborne oil.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated since 2018, when Trump withdrew the US from a multinational agreement that had frozen Iran's nuclear programme, then reimposed crippling sanctions on its economy in a "maximum pressure" campaign.

Venezuela is almost entirely dependent on oil revenue, but its production has fallen to roughly a quarter of the 2008 level and its economy has been devastated by six years of recession. 

Washington's sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro's government have forced Venezuela, which used to refine enough oil for its own needs, to turn to allies, including Iran, to alleviate a desperate gasoline shortage.

Iran sent several tankers of gasoline to Venezuela earlier this year to help ease shortages. 

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