US sells seized Iranian fuel, seeks forfeiture of missiles

The United States has sold and delivered the 1.1 million barrels of Iranian oil seized from four Venezuela-bound vessels in August.

al-monitor The assistant attorney general for national security, John Demers, speaks during a virtual news conference at the Department of Justice on Oct. 28, 2020, in Washington. Photo by SARAH SILBIGER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 29, 2020

The US Department of Justice unveiled Thursday the filing of a civil forfeiture action for seized shipments of Iranian missiles and announced the sale of fuel confiscated from Venezuela-bound Iranian oil tankers during the summer. 

“With these seizure actions, we are expanding our toolbox to combat Iran’s bad behavior,” said John Demers, the assistant attorney general for the National Security Division.

“The two forfeiture complaints allege sophisticated schemes by the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] to secretly ship weapons to Yemen and fuel to Venezuela, countries that pose grave threats to the security and stability of their regions,” Demers said. 

US Navy warships in November and February interdicted flagless vessels in the Arabian Sea that US officials say contained Iranian-made advanced conventional weapons. According to the complaint, experts determined that the guided anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles and other weapons were of Iranian origin and destined for militant groups in Yemen.

Separately, the Department of Justice announced Thursday that it had sold and delivered 1.1 million barrels of Iranian refined petroleum seized from four Venezuela-bound vessels in August. The estimated $40 million successfully forfeited from the fuel sales will support a fund for victims of state-sponsored terrorism, officials said.  

The proceeds will “go to a far better use than either regime, Iran or Venezuela, could have envisioned because it will provide relief for victims of terrorism, rather than the perpetrators," said Elliott Abrams, the State Department special representative for Iran and Venezuela.

The unsealing of the documents came less than a week before the American presidential election. But Michael Sherwin, acting US attorney for the District of Columbia, told reporters the timing was “divorced from politics.” 

“These actions started last summer, and these are fluid, organic situations,” he said.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have soared since the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 landmark Iran nuclear accord in 2018. Former Vice President Joe Biden has said that if Iran returned to compliance under the deal, he would rejoin the pact as a starting point for negotiations if elected president. 

Ahead of the election, the Trump administration has unveiled a series of punitive measures against Iran that analysts say could undermine a return to the deal. On Thursday, the State and Treasury Departments blacklisted 11 entities and individuals based in Iran, China and Singapore for selling and purchasing Iranian petrochemicals.  

The United States on Monday also imposed sweeping counterterrorism sanctions aimed at disrupting Iran’s oil sector, which officials say is a major source of revenue for the Tehran's military activities in the Middle East. The move, which targeted the Oil Ministry, the National Iranian Oil Co. and top oil officials, follows US sanctions announced earlier this month on 18 Iranian banks. 

On Monday, the spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, Alireza Miryousefi, condemned the sanctions as further evidence of US "hostility towards the Iranian people.” 

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