The four tankers named in the complaint filed Wednesday – the Bella, Bering, Pandi and Luna – are currently transporting to Venezuela 1.1 million barrels of gasoline, prosecutors allege, AP reported.
The civil-forfeiture complaint was filed by the federal prosecutors in the US District Court for the District of Columbia late on Wednesday.
The lawsuit aims to stop delivery of Iranian gasoline aboard the tankers, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The complaint also seeks to deter future deliveries of Iranian fuel to Venezuela, and it also aims to stop the flow of revenues from petroleum sales to Iran.
The lawsuit alleges that profits from the shipments support the "full range of nefarious activities, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, support for terrorism, and a variety of human rights abuses, at home and abroad.”
Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, said any attempt by the US to prevent Iran's lawful trading with any country of its choosing would be an act of “piracy, pure and simple,” AP quoted him saying.
“This is a direct threat to international peace and security and in contravention of international law including the UN Charter,” he said in a statement.
Iran sent five ships – Fortune, Forest, Petunia, Faxon and Clavel – carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela in May and June to help revive oil refineries in the South American country is suffering from a severe fuel shortage caused by US sanctions.
Iran’s fuel shipments have drawn the ire of the US, which has imposed draconian sanctions on Iran and Venezuela with the aim of crippling their oil sectors.
The Trump administration has been stepping up pressure on ship owners to abide by sanctions against Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. In May, it issued an advisory urging the global maritime industry to be on the lookout for tactics to evade sanctions like ship-to-ship transfers and the turning off of mandatory tracking devices.