The US government has seized Iranian oil from four tankers sailing to Venezuela, the Justice Department announced on Friday.
“The Justice Department today announced the successful disruption of a multi-million dollar fuel shipment by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a designated foreign terrorist organisation, that was bound for Venezuela,” a statement from the Justice Department read.
It said the seizure of Iranian fuel is the largest in US history.
The four tankers are believed have been carrying 1.116 million barrels of petroleum, which is now in US custody “with the assistance of foreign partners”.
The operation followed a court order in the US last month, allowing the seizure of all petroleum-product cargo aboard the four foreign-flagged oil tankers.
The tankers are M/T Bella, M/T Bering, M/T Pandi and M/T Luna. The Justice Department published photos of the tankers that are now being routed to the US.
A US official told the Wall Street Journal that the tankers were seized without the use of military force.
"The four vessels—Luna, Pandi, Bering and Bella—were seized at sea in recent days and are now en route to Houston," the officials told the paper.
The US has previously threatened to impose sanctions on any shipowners and vessels involved in oil trade with Venezuela and Iran.
The Justice Department said that after the fuel seizure, Iran’s navy forcibly boarded an unrelated ship to recover the seized petroleum, but was unsuccessful.
On Wednesday, the US Central Command (Centcom) accused Iran of taking over a tanker in the Gulf waters and released a video of a ship being boarded by men dropped from a helicopter.
Centcom tweeted the video in English and Farsi, alleging two Iranian ships and a helicopter took part in the operation.
"Today in international waters, Iranian forces, including two ships and an Iranian "Sea King" helicopter, overtook and boarded a ship called the Wila," the tweet read.
Army Maj John Rigsbee, a Centcom spokesperson, told The National that the Iranian action violated international law and undermined freedom of navigation and commerce.
"We call on Iran to explain its actions to the international community and articulate its legal basis for its actions," Maj Rigsbee said.
Tensions between Iran and the United States increased last year following a series of incidents involving shipping in and near the Arabian Gulf.
In July 2019, Iran briefly seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf after Britain seized the Iranian tanker Grace 1, accused of violating sanctions on Syria.
Earlier, six commercial ships were attacked in May and June near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow channel between Iran and Oman through which about a quarter of the world's oil passes.
The US blamed Iran's Revolutionary Guard for the attacks, believed to have been carried out with limpet mines and fast boats.