US authorities have ordered an Iranian crude oil tanker to be rerouted towards the US in recent days, in a move officials believe prompted Iran’s decision to seize a US-bound tanker on Thursday.
Three people familiar with the situation said the United States intervened to recall a ship loaded with Iranian crude, which was originally bound for China, as Washington looks to ramp up enforcement of sanctions against Tehran. The Iranian Navy tried, unsuccessfully, to pursue the tanker after it embarked on its last voyage.
The people said the US Department of Justice has seized the tanker, the Suez Rajan, under a court order in cooperation with at least one company involved with the vessel. The Suez Rajan has been under scrutiny since it was accused last year of transporting a cargo of Iranian oil, destined for China, from another ship near Singapore. The Justice Department declined to comment.
Previously unreported US action toward the Suez Canal Rajan sheds new light on Iran’s decision to seize the Advantage Sweet, a US-bound Kuwaiti oil tanker that was chartered by Chevron.
“The seizure of Iranian oil on Thursday appears to be in response to a previous US seizure of Iranian oil, which Iran recently tried unsuccessfully to recover,” a US official said.
Iran has a history of seizing oil tankers in retaliation against Western countries targeting crude oil shipments. In 2019, Iran seized two British-flagged tankers shortly after the UK seized an Iranian ship that had stopped in Gibraltar en route to Syria. Last year, Iran also seized two Greek-flagged ships in the Strait of Hormuz after Greece allowed the United States to offload an Iranian tanker cargo in Greek waters.
The US seizure would also raise questions about whether US-linked operators were given sufficient warning of the potential heightened risks of sailing vessels such as the Advantage Sweet near Iran.
Rajan’s alleged Suez Canal involvement in the Iranian oil trade, which is imposed by the United States, was exposed in February 2022 by the lobby group United Against a Nuclear Iran. The news led to a civil lawsuit being filed in Manhattan by the families of the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In a case that is still ongoing, they sought the United States to confiscate Iranian oil transported by Rajan’s Suez Canal in order to help pay compensation that a US court found in 2018 owed Iran for its role in the attacks.
US interest in the ship arose because the ship was owned by Fleetscape, a US-based subsidiary of Oaktree Capital. This contrasts with the so-called “ghost fleet” of ships normally used to transport Iranian oil. Ownership of those ships is shrouded in secrecy, making claims difficult.
At the time of the 2022 claims, Fleetscape said all operational decisions were made by Empire Navigation, the ship’s Greek operators. Fleetscape and Empire said they took the allegations seriously and were cooperating with US authorities to investigate. Martin Graham, managing director at Oaktree Capital, argued that neither Fleetscape nor Oaktree had “any ownership interest whatsoever” in the Suez Ragan cargoes, according to a court filing.
Since the allegations were raised, Suez Rajan has kept a low profile, largely reporting on her locations at a shelter near Singapore since last March. Kpler, a data analytics company, has no record of it being involved in any transactions since February 2022. The ship’s transfers give depth of water meaning it has not offloaded its oil since it was accused of taking Iranian crude. .
The Suez Canal Rajan began its current voyage, up the Strait of Malacca and then west across the Indian Ocean, on April 7. Its current location is unclear: According to Spire Global, a satellite data company, it broadcast its location on the evening of April. 22 as it turned southwest past Madagascar toward the Cape of Good Hope.
The Advantage Sweet Suezmax tanker seized by Iran was operating under short-term charter for Chevron, one of the largest US oil companies. and its crew, all Indians, are now in Iranian custody. It was taken in the Gulf of Oman, east of the Strait of Hormuz, according to US Central Command. Ships and crew members held by Iran have been released in the past, but often not for months.
Fleetscape and Empire have been contacted for comment.
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