The United States confirmed Friday that it seized a tanker load of Iranian oil in April, just before Iran seized two ships in the Gulf region, in the Justice Department’s first official statement on the incident.
The ministry said it had seized the Suez Rajan, a Greek-owned tanker, and its cargo of 980,000 barrels of crude oil allegedly sold to China by Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards.
That sale would violate U.S. and international sanctions, and the U.S. government obtained a warrant for its seizure early this year.
On April 19, around the time of the seizure, the ship’s owner, Suez Rajan Ltd, pleaded guilty to violating sanctions and was fined $2.5 million.
Subsequently, the Greek ship operator, Empire Navigation, agreed to cooperate with US authorities and ordered the ship, which was in Southeast Asia at the time, to bring its cargo of oil to the United States.
At the time, US authorities would not confirm that the ship took control of the cargo and that the ship was sailing to the United States.
But Iran’s seizure of two tankers – the Marshall Islands-flagged Advantage Sweet sailing to the United States in the Gulf of Oman, and then the Greek-owned Niovi as it traveled from Dubai to Fujairah – came just days later.
At the time, the United States accused Iran of “intimidation” and “interference with navigation rights in regional and international waters.”
The seizures increased tensions in the Gulf region.
In early July, the US military said it had blocked two more attempts by the Iranian Navy to seize commercial tankers in international waters off the coast of Oman.
The Justice Department said Friday that the Suez Rajan case was the first successful disruption of a major crude oil shipment by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps using U.S. criminal law.
They said participants in the Suez Rajan scheme had “attempted to disguise the origins of the oil through ship-to-ship transfers” and mask the locations and identities of the ships involved.
They also said the ship’s charterer used the U.S. financial system to facilitate the transportation of Iranian oil, violating sanctions on Iran.
The US has moved to take ownership of the cargo, worth tens of millions of dollars, which will then be sold.