The US government has said it seized 1.116 million barrels of fuel because it was bound for Venezuela which is under American sanctions as part of Washington’s bid to topple President Nicolas Maduro, but the owners have disputed it.
According to a filing with the US District Court for the District of Columbia Tuesday, “at the time they were seized, the Defendant Properties were destined for Trinidad for sale to customers in Peru and Colombia.”
When the news of the loot was first broken last month, Iran put down its foot to assert that neither the ships were Iranian nor their owners or their cargo had any connection to the Islamic Republic.
US reports had also claimed that the ships were owned by Greece, but the court filing on Tuesday showed otherwise.
United Arab Emirates-based Mobin International Limited said it was the owner of the cargo aboard the Bella and Bering tankers, UK-registered Oman Fuel said it owned the cargo aboard the Pandi and Luna tankers, and Oman-registered Sohar Fuel said it part-owned the cargo aboard the Luna.
The companies said they had sold the cargoes onwards to UAE-based Citi Energy FZC, but payment was due upon delivery, which was disrupted by the seizure, Reuters reported.
“Therefore, 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,” they wrote in the filing.
US claim of victory dealt a blow
The legal challenge puts yet another damper on the US government’s victory lap which came with the much-hyped claim that Washington had finally found a way to block Iran and Venezuela from evading American economic sanctions.
Over the past two years, the Trump administration has repeatedly placed sanctions on Iran’s oil and other lucrative industries with the express aim of shutting Tehran out of global markets and causing an economic collapse.
But far from collapsing as American leaders had predicted, Iran’s economy keeps humming and is getting back on its feet.
Meanwhile, Iran sent five oil tankers 1.5 million barrels of gasoline and diesel fuel to Venezuela in May and June despite American threats to stop them.
“We showcased our might, and our biggest display of power was the imposition of our will and the sailing through high seas from the Persian Gulf to Venezuela,” Major General Hussein Salami said last month.
An Iranian news agency said Iran’s naval forces were preparing to target US commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf in case US forces interfered with Venezuela-bound Iranian oil tankers.
When the New York Times first reported the seizure of the four cargoes last month, the newspaper headlined it as a “diplomatic doubleheader” which blocked Iran and Venezuela from evading American economic sanctions.
Iranian officials brushed aside the claim, with Iran’s Ambassador to Venezuela Hojjat Soltani saying the report was an “act of psychological warfare perpetrated by the US propaganda machine” trying to compensate for the Trump administration’s “humiliation and defeat by Iran using false propaganda.”
“The United States is seeking to contrive a victory for itself. Neither did the ships nor the cargo belong to Iran,” Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zangeneh told reporters in Tehran.
Aiming to cut Iran’s sales to zero, Washington in May 2019 ended sanctions waivers for importers of Iranian oil. Tehran reacted with typical defiance, saying it would find ways to sell its oil.
Last month, NBC News cited data from online service TankerTrackers.com showing that Iran was exporting a lot more crude oil than US figures suggest.
According to the data, Iran is exporting as much as 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil – thrice more than an estimate of 227,000 bpd made in a US congressional report.
Iran, NBC News said, is coming up with more innovative techniques in wiggling its way around the draconian American sanctions.
Iranian officials have said the country is in an economic war with the United States which has forced international payment networks to cut off the Islamic Republic, making trade all but impossible.
$10 billion of oil, petrochemical investment in 5 months
On Tuesday, Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum said oil and petrochemical investment in the country has reached $10 billion since the beginning of the Iranian calendar year in March.
The government plans to officially launch 17 petrochemical projects, which are expected to produce 100 million tonnes annually and generate $25 billion per year in revenues by the end of the year, it said.
Iran also plans to launch by the end of its current calendar year in March 2021 an oil terminal designed to bypass the Strait of Hormuz for Iranian oil exports.
The country has already started building an onshore oil pipeline worth $1.8 billion to Jask which sits just east of the Strait of Hormuz. As much as $700 million of the investment will go to develop the port terminal.
The 1,100-kilometer pipeline will be capable of carrying 1 million bpd of crude oil from the Goureh oil terminal in the northwest to Jask on the Sea of Oman, without the need to have tankers travel through the Strait of Hormuz.
Last month, Iran said it had signed a total of 13 oil contracts with 14 domestic firms, which will raise the Islamic Republic’s oil production capacity by 185,000 barrels per day.