A Greek shipping company pleaded guilty to smuggling sanctioned Iranian crude oil and agreed to pay a $2.4 million fine, newly unsealed U.S. court documents seen Thursday by The Associated Press show.
The now-public case against Empire Navigation, which faces three years of probation under the plea deal, marks the first public acknowledgment by U.S. prosecutors that the United States seized about 1 million barrels of oil from the Suez tanker Rajan.
The saga surrounding the ship further escalated tensions between Washington and Iran, even as they work toward a swap of billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korea for the release of five Iranian Americans detained in Tehran.
The court documents also shed light on the covert world of Iranian crude oil smuggling in the face of Western sanctions since the collapse of its 2015 nuclear deal, an operation that has only grown in scale this year.
The United States and its allies have been seizing shipments of Iranian oil since 2019.
In this satellite photo provided by Planet Labs PBC, ships identified as Virgo, left, and Suez Rajan, by the advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, are seen in the South China Sea on February 13, 2022. AP
This has led to a series of attacks in the Middle East blamed on the Islamic Republic, as well as seizures of ships by Iranian military and paramilitary forces that threaten global shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf. through which 20% of the population passes. the oil countries of the world.
Attention began to focus on the Suez Rajan in February 2022, when the United Against Iran Nuclear group said it suspected the tanker was carrying oil from Iran’s Khargh island, its main oil distribution terminal in the Persian Gulf.
Satellite photos and shipping data analyzed at the time by the AP supported the allegation.
The case against Empire Navigation acknowledges that the United States seized approximately 1 million barrels of oil from the tanker Suez Rajan.Bonnie Cash/Pool via CNP/SplashNews.com
Newly unsealed court documents rely on satellite imagery, as well as documents, to show that Suez Rajan attempted to mask its cargo of Iranian crude oil from one tanker by trying to claim the oil came from another.
For months, the ship lingered in the South China Sea off the northeast coast of Singapore before suddenly setting sail for the Texas coast without explanation.
The ship offloaded its cargo onto another tanker, which has spilled its oil in Houston in recent days.
KN patrol vessel. Pulau Marore-322, owned by the Indonesian Maritime Safety Agency, patrols to inspect the Iranian-flagged Very Large Crude Carrier near the Indonesian North Natuna Sea, Indonesia, July 7, 2023. via REUTERS
Court documents seen Thursday confirm that the US government seized the oil.
A lawyer for Empire Navigation, Apostolos Tourkantonis, pleaded guilty to a single count of violating Iran sanctions. Empire, based in Athens, Greece, did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Thursday.
The US Treasury has said that proceeds from Iran’s oil smuggling support the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guard expeditionary unit that operates throughout the Middle East.
The United States has been seizing Iranian oil, prompting attacks in the Middle East blamed on the Islamic Republic. ZUMAPRESS.com
The Guard is suspected of being closely involved in the trade, involving hundreds of vessels that attempt to mask their movements and may conceal their ownership through foreign shell companies.
But Suez Rajan’s case was unique at the time of the transfer because it was owned by Los Angeles-based private equity firm Oaktree Capital Management.
This likely gave US prosecutors an advantage in pursuing this case.
Four ships of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy are seen alongside the guided missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton in the Gulf. Via REUTERS
Oaktree, which has repeatedly refused to discuss the case, sold the ship in its entirety to Empire in late May.
Mark Wallace, former US ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, who heads United Against Nuclear Iran, praised Empire Navigation for accepting the petition.
He described Iran’s oil smuggling as a “mafia-like” operation and urged others to abandon the trade.
In this photo, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy vessels are seen near U.S. military ships at close range as they operate in international waters of the northern Arabian Gulf on April 15, 2020. EPA
“They faced Iranian assassination threats in Greece,” Wallace told the AP. “They took the exit ramp to leave the crowd.”
Wallace declined to provide further details, and US court documents offered no details about the alleged threat.
However, the delay in unloading the Suez Rajan’s cargo had also become a political issue for the Biden administration, as the ship had remained for months in the Gulf of Mexico, possibly because companies were concerned about the threat from Iran.
Since the Suez Rajan headed for the United States, Iran has seized two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, including one with cargo for major US oil company Chevron Corp.
In July, the top commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s naval arm threatened new action against anyone who unloaded the Suez Rajan, and state media linked recent seizures to the cargo’s destination.
Iran has continued to threaten the seizure and summoned a Swiss diplomat in Tehran to express anger.
A delay in unloading the cargo from the Suez Rajan became a problem for the Biden administration. ZUMAPRESS.com
Switzerland has looked after US interests in Iran since the 1979 seizure of the US embassy and the hostage crisis.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The US Navy has steadily increased its presence in the Middle East in recent weeks, sending the troop- and aircraft-carrying USS Bataan through the Strait of Hormuz and considering sending armed personnel to commercial ships traveling through of the strait to prevent Iran from seizing additional ships. .
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Late Wednesday, the United States updated its warning to shippers traveling through the Middle East, saying: “Commercial vessels transiting the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman continue to be boarded, detained or illegally seized by Iranian forces.”
This year, Iranian oil exports have mostly exceeded one million barrels a day despite U.S. sanctions, according to commodities data firm Kpler.
In May and June it exceeded 1.5 million barrels a day, while in August the figures rose to 1.4 million barrels a day, Kpler data showed.
China is believed to be a major buyer of Iranian oil, probably at a significant discount.
“Justice was served,” Wallace said. “At the same time, there needs to be a serious political review of why it took so long and why there are 300 ships doing the same thing.”