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U.S. Seizes More Than 1 Million Barrels Of Iranian Petroleum From Tankers

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The U.S. has seized more than a million barrels of Iranian fuel aboard four tankers that were heading to Venezuela. The Justice Department called it the largest ever seizure of fuel shipments from Iran and said it was because the tankers were in violation of sanctions. The move is part of the Trump administration's campaign of maximum pressure on Iran. NPR's Jackie Northam has been following the story and joins us now. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So what can you tell us about what happened with these ships?

NORTHAM: Right. Well, the seizure of these four Greek-owned ships happened earlier this week, and the Justice Department says the order to seize and confiscate the cargo was issued by a U.S. district court and that the U.S., along with the assistance of foreign partners, confiscated the cargo onboard, and this was done by a ship-to-ship transfer of the fuel. You know, it's a little uncertain what type of fuel they're talking about it. It could be bunker fuel, which is used for heavy machinery and the like, or just plain old gasoline. Either way, it was bound for Venezuela; now it's believed to be bound for the U.S. And the Justice Department says the proceeds from its sale will go towards a fund for victims of state-sponsored terrorism.

MCCAMMON: And where are those four tankers now? Are they also on their way to the U.S.?

NORTHAM: Well, that's unclear right now. The four tankers turned off their location transponders more than three months ago, so we don't know where they are at the moment. If the U.S. has the ships, they could be brought back here to the U.S. and sold at auction. They could have been handed back to the Greek shipowner. We don't know.

I talked to a couple of analysts today, including shipping analysts, and this action is really just seen as part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to put pressure on Iran by going after shipping companies that are carrying Iranian fuel or oil or even the insurance companies that they use and threatening to sanction them if they deal with the Iranians. You know, for the past few years, the administration has been heavily sanctioning Iranian and Venezuelan, for that matter, companies and individuals. And this is just a different route to apply pressure on the regime.

MCCAMMON: And what is Iran saying about this?

NORTHAM: Well, Iran's ambassador to Venezuela rejected the U.S. justification for this seizure and confiscation as fake news, and he called it another lie and psychological warfare by U.S. propaganda machine and said that the tankers have nothing to do with Iran. But the fact is Iran really needs the money from its oil sales. They've been hit very hard by the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign which will sanction any country dealing with Iran. So any sales that it makes have to be kept quiet. And, you know, even though this is a seizure of just over a million barrels, it's a shot by the U.S. directly towards Tehran.

MCCAMMON: And we're hearing about the seizure just a day after the U.S. announced it had brokered an agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. They're going to establish full diplomatic relations. That new friendship is seen as being driven by their mutual dislike for Iran. So Iran may be feeling more isolated now. Jackie, is Iran expected to retaliate for the seizure of its ships?

NORTHAM: Well, Iran has vowed to resist U.S. attempts to isolate it and could certainly see these events as a real challenge and feel it may need to stand up for itself, using whatever is available for them to respond. You know, it might try to seize vessels of its own. If you recall, just over a year ago, Iran seized a British oil tanker and its 23 crew members in the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for British forces detaining an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar. Also, last year, it's believed Iran was using mines to attack ships in the Persian Gulf. And, you know, the U.S. says, already in the last few days, Iranian forces boarded a ship, trying to take the petroleum onboard but was unsuccessful.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Thanks, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.