Friday , 8 December 2023

How significant is latest US seizure of illicit Iranian oil shipment?

Al-Monitor — The US Justice Department revealed Friday that it disrupted a multimillion-dollar shipment of crude oil being smuggled to China in violation of US sanctions on Iran. 

The case involving the Suez Rajan, which federal authorities confiscated in April and redirected toward the United States, came amid wider tensions with Iran over its nuclear program and detention of American citizens. 

The 12-year-old Marshall Islands-flagged tanker, which was loaded with some 980,000 barrels of Iranian crude, was for months moored off the coast of Galveston, Texas. The vessel was unloaded in August after members of Congress questioned whether threats by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps prevented its discharge. 

A senior commander in the IRGC navy said in July that Tehran would retaliate against any shipping company that offloaded the Suez Rajan’s cargo. Fearing possible reprisal, American shipping companies were reportedly reluctant to transfer the oil. 

According to newly unsealed court documents, Suez Rajan Limited, the company that owns the vessel, pleaded guilty in April to conspiring to violate US international commerce laws. It was sentenced to a three-year corporate probation period and a fine of nearly $2.5 million. 

Empire Navigation, the vessel’s Greek operating company, agreed to transport the contraband oil from Southeast Asia to the United States, the filing in Washington federal court said. 

The complaint alleges entities affiliated with the IRGC and its elite Quds Force attempted to covertly sell and transport the oil to “a customer abroad.” They allegedly tried to conceal the oil’s origin using ship-to-ship transfers, false automatic identification system reporting and falsified documents.  

In apparent retaliation for the Suez Rajan’s seizure, Iranian navy commandos confiscated the Advantage Sweet, a US-bound oil tanker, in the Gulf of Oman this April.  

Since 2021, the Iranian navy and the IRGC have harassed, attacked or seized nearly 20 internationally flagged merchant vessels, according to the US Navy, which in July intervened to prevent Iran from capturing two commercial tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Washington has responded to the recent tanker attacks with a buildup of US military forces in the Persian Gulf region.