The US government has seized nearly a million barrels of Iranian crude oil it says was smuggled to China in violation of US sanctions on Iran, after threatening legal action for bringing the tanker into the waters Americans, according to newly released court documents. to show.
The seizure of oil from the vessel, the M/T Suez Rajan, is part of a larger and darker conflict with Iran. After the tanker began heading for the United States last spring, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps seized two tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, prompting the US military to increase patrols and deploy troops. additional means to protect shipping lanes.
In July, Iranian state media said the commander of the Guards navy had warned that Tehran would hold Washington responsible if oil from the tanker was unloaded, without giving further details. On Wednesday, a senior Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the seizure had sparked fresh fears that Iran could hijack more tankers in a bid to deter the United States from repeat this operation.
Court filings offer rare insight into what prosecutors describe as an oil smuggling operation that prevented the precise location of a tanker, falsified cargo records and deployed other techniques in an attempt to escape to US sanctions.
A Justice Department spokesperson said it plans to issue a statement on the matter soon.
While the court documents relating to this case had remained secret for months, elements of the actual seizure by the United States of the M/T Suez Rajan had remained in public view.
The tanker remained off the coast of Texas for several months because the government struggled to find a company willing to offload it and risk Iranian retaliation. The standoff prompted a bipartisan group of lawmakers last month to urge President Biden to complete the seizure, calling the delay due to such fears “unacceptable.”
United Against Nuclear Iran, a non-profit organization that includes many former US and foreign government security officials, first drew attention to the likelihood that the Suez Rajan was carrying illicit oil in February 2022, citing satellite images.
The organization’s chief executive, Mark Wallace, a former ambassador in the George W. Bush administration, said a Greek company that managed the vessel eventually brought another of its vessels to Texas to complete the unloading. He praised Empire Navigation, for braving what he described as transnational intimidation from Iran and finally “doing the right thing”.
But he added that the time it had taken to resolve the issue pointed to a larger problem and that his group had identified some 300 other tankers who may be involved in smuggling Iranian oil, based on data similar.
Christopher Man, an attorney representing Empire Navigation, did not respond to a phone and email request for comment. Empire Navigation agreed to cooperate and was granted a stay of charges agreement in April, court documents show, while a subsidiary that operates the ship, Suez Rajan Limited, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate US sanctions.
The dispute has heightened tensions as the United States negotiated a prisoner swap with Iran. Under the terms of the deal, five American detainees will eventually be freed in exchange for the release of several Iranians imprisoned by the United States and Tehran’s access to $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenues in South Korea. (United Against Nuclear Iran condemned the deal.)
As oil was unloaded from the Suez Rajan last week, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani called recent US actions contradictory in his remarks to reporters. He said Tehran had summoned Switzerland’s top diplomat to Iran – the Swiss embassy looks after US interests in Iran – to express a “strong objection” to the US seizure of oil, which it has admitted that she was Iranian, and called the decision a “completely unproductive action. »
The Department of Justice was influential in the Suez Rajan case because its owners and operators have ties to the Western economy. The ship is financed by a British shipping company, Fleetscape, which is backed by an American investment company, Oaktree Capital Management.
According to court filings, in early February 2022, Suez Rajan, then empty and operated by Empire, anchored near Singapore and took on a small amount of legal oil – around 4,000 barrels – during a transfer. with a ship called CS Brilliance. .
But about a week later, he took on a much larger quantity of oil from Iran – almost a million barrels – from another ship, the Virgo. While satellite images showed the two side by side, Virgo reported a false position about eight miles away. Documents were falsified to indicate that all the oil came from the Brilliance, according to the documents.
After United Against Nuclear Iran raised smuggling allegations, including in a letter to Oaktree Capital Management, Empire Navigation blocked the ship from sailing to China, keeping it anchored near Malaysia, and publicly stated it was investigating. to find out if Iranian oil had been illegally transferred to a vessel. it was to manage.
It is unclear exactly when the US government began investigating the vessel. But in March 2022, a group of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks attempted to seize the oil, citing information provided by United Against Nuclear Iran. The plaintiffs had obtained a default judgment against Iran worth billions of dollars for allegedly aiding al-Qaeda terrorists, and were trying to collect them.
Their efforts ultimately failed in court. But the Ministry of Justice had an additional tool: the possibility of filing a criminal complaint. Court documents showed the company brokered a deferred prosecution agreement with Empire Navigation, which agreed to cooperate, eventually bringing the ship into waters off Texas so the Iranian oil could be seized.
Mr Wallace said the oil would be sold and the proceeds would likely go into a government-run fund that would compensate victims of state-sponsored terror attacks.
Citing “operational and security risks”, the Justice Department kept the legal proceedings secret until all the oil had been unloaded.
“Given the nature of the cargo, the sensitivity of this action and the time it would take to transport the cargo to the United States, disclosure of this action was likely to pose security risks to the defendants. , as well as the government. like the ship and its crew members,” a filing explains.