Israel's Ofer Brothers Group, one of the companies to be hit with United States sanctions for trade with Iran, denied on Tuesday that they it had ever sold ships to the Islamic state.
"We have never sold ships to Iran," the company said in a statement, adding that the Israeli government would support its claims.
The U.S. accused the Ofer Brothers of selling a tanker valued at $8.65 million to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL).
"We believe that Tanker Pacific and Ofer Brothers Group failed to exercise due diligence and did not heed publicly available and easily obtainable information that would have indicated that they were dealing with IRISL," the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
The Ofer Brothers Group as well as the Singapore-based Tanker Pacific are owned by Sammy and Yuli Ofer.
"The Secretary (Hillary Clinton) will hold companies accountable, as required by the Iran Sanctions Act, when they know or 'should have known' they were providing sanctionable goods or services to Iran," it added.
With the imposition of sanctions, Tanker Pacific and Ofer Brothers Group are barred from securing financing from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, from obtaining loans over e10 million from U.S. financial institutions and from receiving U.S. export licenses.
The Ofers are Israel's richest family. They control Israel Corp, one of Israel's largest investment companies.
Israel Corp holds stakes in Israel Chemicals (ICL), the world's sixth-largest maker of potash, shipping firm Zim, chipmaker TowerJazz and Oil Refineries. It is also a main financial backer of the Better Place electric car venture.
The Israeli business group, which owns the controlling interest in The Israel Corporation and a host of major companies, is one of many. Washington slapped new sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA and six other oil and shipping firms yesterday for engaging in trade with Iran in violation of a U.S. ban.
Deputy U.S. Secretary of State James Steinberg said the move against PDVSA would block it from access to U.S. government contracts and import/export financing but would not affect the company's sale of oil to the United States or the activities of its subsidiaries including U.S.-based CITGO.
The intent is to squeeze Iran's gasoline supplies, Steinberg said. The impact could amplify as other companies recognize the risks of doing business with the Islamic Republic.
"By imposing these sanctions we're sending a clear message to companies around the world: those who continue to irresponsibly support Iran's energy sector or help facilitate Iran's efforts to evade U.S. sanctions will face significant consequences," he told a news briefing.
The other companies are PCCI, the Royal Oyster Group and Speedy Ship of the United Arab Emirates, Tanker Pacific of Singapore and Associated Shipbroking of Monaco.
Iran, gasoline importer
To try to get Tehran to drop its nuclear work, the U.S. Congress passed sanctions last year targeting Iran's energy and banking sectors by threatening to penalize foreign companies that do business with Iran. As a result, major oil companies have halted business with Iran, which is dependent on gasoline imports due to a lack of refining capacity.
The U.S. prohibitions are separate from U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran for its refusal to halt uranium enrichment. Those sanctions do not include a ban on gasoline sales.
Steinberg said Iran's response to the latest offer of nuclear talks was inadequate and that the United States and its allies would continue to increase pressure, although there has been little sign that Tehran is willing to change its posture.