U.S. Seized Iranian Oil Over Smuggling Incident That Escalated Tensions in Gulf

The United States government has seized nearly one million barrels of Iranian crude oil that it says was being smuggled to China in violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran, after it raised the threat of prosecution to get the tanker brought to American waters, newly unsealed court papers show.

The seizure of the oil from the vessel, the M/T Suez Rajan, is part of a larger and shadowy conflict with Iran. After the tanker began to steam toward the United States last spring, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps seized two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, prompting the U.S. military to increase patrols and deploy additional assets to protect shipping lanes.

In July, Iranian state news media said the Guards’ navy commander had warned that Tehran would hold Washington responsible if the tanker’s oil was unloaded, without giving further details. On Wednesday, a high-ranking Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the seizure raised new fears that Iran could hijack more tankers in an effort to deter the United States from repeating the move.

The court filings offer a rare glimpse into what prosecutors describe as an oil smuggling operation that kept a tanker’s location from being accurately tracked, falsified cargo records and deployed other techniques in an attempt to evade U.S. sanctions.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said it planned to issue a statement about the matter soon.

While the court filings in the case had remained sealed for months, elements of the effective American seizure of the M/T Suez Rajan had been in public view.

The tanker was sitting off the coast of Texas for several months because the government had trouble finding a company willing to offload it and risk Iranian retaliation. The standstill prompted a bipartisan group of lawmakers to urge President Biden last month to complete the seizure, calling the delay because of such fears “unacceptable.”

United Against Nuclear Iran, a nonprofit organization that includes many former U.S. and foreign government security officials, first brought attention to the likelihood that the Suez Rajan was carrying illicit oil in February 2022, citing satellite imagery.

The organization’s chief executive, Mark Wallace, a former ambassador in the George W. Bush administration, said that a Greek company that managed the vessel ultimately brought another of its ships to Texas to complete the offloading. He praised the company, Empire Navigation, for braving what he portrayed as transnational intimidation by Iran and eventually “doing the right thing.”

But he said that the length of time it had taken to resolve the matter underscored a larger problem, and that his group had identified some 300 other such tankers likely engaged in Iranian oil smuggling, based on similar data.

Christopher Man, a lawyer representing Empire Navigation, did not return a request for comment by phone and email. Empire Navigation agreed to cooperate and obtained a deferred prosecution agreement in April, court filings show, while a subsidiary that operates the vessel, Suez Rajan Limited, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions.

The dispute heightened tensions as the United States negotiated a prisoner exchange with Iran. Under the deal, five American detainees there will eventually leave in exchange for the release of several jailed Iranians by the United States and Tehran’s gaining access to $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue that had been frozen in South Korea. (United Against Nuclear Iran condemned the deal.)

As the oil was being unloaded from the Suez Rajan last week, Nasser Kanaani, a spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, portrayed recent American actions as contradictory in remarks to journalists. He said Tehran had summoned Switzerland’s top diplomat in Iran — the Swiss Embassy handles American interests in Iran — to express a “strong objection” over the United States’ seizure of the oil, which he acknowledged was Iranian, and called the move “a completely unproductive action.”

The Justice Department had leverage in the case of the Suez Rajan because its owners and operators have ties to the Western economy. The vessel was financed by a British maritime firm, Fleetscape, which is backed by an American investment company, Oaktree Capital Management.

According to the court filings, in early February 2022, Suez Rajan, which was then empty and operated by Empire, anchored near Singapore and took on a small amount of legal oil — about 4,000 barrels — in a transfer with a vessel called the CS Brilliance.

But about a week later, it took on a far larger amount of oil that originated in Iran — nearly a million barrels — from another vessel, the Virgo. While satellite imagery showed the two side by side, the Virgo reported a false location of about eight miles away. Paperwork was falsified to indicate that all of the oil had come from the Brilliance, the filings said.

After United Against Nuclear Iran raised smuggling allegations, including in a letter to Oaktree Capital Management, Empire Navigation stopped the vessel from going to China, keeping it anchored near Malaysia, and publicly said it was investigating whether Iranian oil had been illicitly transferred to a vessel it was managing.

It is not clear when the U.S. government began investigating the ship. But in March 2022, a group of victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, tried to seize the oil, citing information supplied by United Against Nuclear Iran. The plaintiffs had won a default judgment against Iran worth billions of dollars for purportedly aiding the Al Qaeda terrorists, and were trying to collect.

Their effort ultimately failed in court. But the Justice Department had an additional tool: the ability to bring criminal charges. The court filings showed it had negotiated the deferred prosecution agreement with Empire Navigation, which agreed to cooperate — ultimately bringing the ship to the waters off Texas so the Iranian oil could be seized.

Mr. Wallace said the oil would be sold and the proceeds likely put into a government-run fund that compensates victims of state-sponsored terrorist 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 was expected to take to transport the cargo to the United States, revelation of this action was likely to cause security risks to the defendants, the government, as well as the vessel and its crew members,” one filing explained.

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