US seized shipment of Iranian oil as Biden considers easing sanctions

MIAMI (AP) — The United States quietly seized the cargo of two tankers suspected of carrying Iranian oil as part of an elaborate sanctions-busting scheme that involved forging documents and painting a ship’s deck to conceal illegal shipments.

Details of the seizure, which have not previously been reported, were contained in an unsealed federal civil case last month after Greek-run vessels unloaded their precious cargo, worth more than $38 million dollars, in Houston and the Bahamas under US law. enforcement.

The seizure comes as the Biden administration seeks to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that would likely result in the lifting of punitive sanctions by the United States. This task was made more urgent by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the decision of the United States to retaliate by banning all imports of Russian oil, potentially removing more than 10 million barrels of oil from Western markets. oil per day. Some of this lost supply could be made up by Iran, which pumped an average of 2.4 million barrels a day in 2021, although due to sanctions it was able to sell less than half of what he produces.

Opponents of Iran warn that even if Ukraine muddies the geopolitical calculations and the United States turns its attention to Russia, the Biden administration should not let up on the pressure on the Islamic Republic. The country is considered by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite military unit that plays a key role in the oil industry, a supporter of Hezbollah and others militant groups active throughout the Middle East.

“This seizure is a perfect example of why the United States should not lift sanctions,” said Claire Jungman, chief of staff of the New York-based group United Against Nuclear Iran, which closely follows shipments of Iranian crude. “We must continue to work to ensure that the IRGC cannot use the proceeds from its sale of Iranian oil to fund terrorism and other activities that threaten the safety and security of all Americans.”

The long odyssey that led to the US seizure began in the fall of 2020 when the M/T Stark I, an Iranian vessel under US sanctions since 2018, repainted its deck in an apparent attempt to disguise the vessel and avoid to be detected by satellite imagery. On October 31, 2020, it stopped at a terminal on the Iranian island of Kharg and loaded full of oil.

Four days later, on November 3, 2020, 733,876 barrels of oil were transferred at sea to another tanker, the M/T Arina. During the dangerous ship-to-ship transfer, both ships turned off their transponders – a mandatory safety feature on all large vessels – to avoid being picked up on ship tracking databases, satellite images and data. shared by Jungman show.

Despite US sanctions, Iran has recorded a windfall of revenue as oil prices have risen over the past year. The key to the smuggling operation lies in dozens of foreign-flagged private tankers – dubbed a “ghost armada”. by Jungman’s group – who deploy a variety of sophisticated techniques to conceal their movements. Even US-owned tankers, like one owned by a subsidiary of private equity giant Oaktree Capital Management, were involved in the burgeoning black market trade.

In a cat-and-mouse world, ship-tracking technology has spurred efforts to detect sanctions-evading behavior from Iran as well as Venezuela, whose oil industry is also subject to US restrictions. on export. But the seizure of oil shipments is rare: prior to this latest action, it had only been done twice before. Proceeds from the sale of confiscated shipments are used in part to compensate US victims of terrorism.

Panamanian-flagged Arina, whose last listed manager is Athens-based Saint James Shipping Ltd., was previously known to ship illegal Iranian crude, according to U.S. attorneys in a civil complaint filed in federal court in Washington. Earlier in 2020 and again on its last suspicious voyage, false documents were created to show the crude the ship was carrying came from Oman, prosecutors say.

It was not possible to contact Saint James Shipping and a website believed to belong to the company was not working.

From there, the Arina set course for the Suez Canal but experienced numerous delays throughout the voyage. Eventually it made its way to Istanbul, Turkey, where it underwent repair work, and then to Romania, according to ship tracking data analyzed by Jungman.

Throughout the voyage, the ship’s managers failed to find a buyer for the Iranian oil. Then, on Aug. 26, 2021, it transferred some of its cargo – about 220,793 barrels – to another vessel, the M/T Nostos, off the coast of Cyprus, prosecutors say in their complaint. Piraeus-based Eurotankers, the last listed manager of the Liberian-flagged Nostos, did not immediately respond to an email or phone call seeking comment.

The two vessels – the Arina and the Nostos – then attempted to offload the oil at a storage facility in Turkey, according to Jungman. Instead, they were detected by US authorities and ordered to unload their cargo, which the Nostos did in Houston around Thanksgiving last year and Arina more recently in January in the Bahamas, according to Jungman.

The 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers allowed it to regain the ability to openly sell oil on the international market. But in 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal and reimposed US sanctions. It slammed the door on much of Iran’s lucrative oil trade, a major driver of its economy and government.

But in recent months, Iranian officials have hinted that they have been able to sell crude oil despite US sanctions. Iran’s Central Bank released statistics in early February suggesting it had $18.6 billion in oil sales in the first half of this Persian year, down from $8.5 billion in the same period last year. last, according to the official IRAN newspaper.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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