U.S. officials ordered an Iranian crude oil tanker to be diverted to the United States in recent days, a move officials believe prompted Iran’s decision to seize the U.S.-bound tanker on Thursday.
Three people briefed on the situation said the US had intervened to intercept a ship carrying Iranian crude oil that was originally destined for China as Washington looked to step up enforcement of sanctions against Tehran. Iran’s navy unsuccessfully tried to pursue the tanker after it embarked on its latest voyage.
The US Department of Justice, with the cooperation of at least one company linked to the vessel, seized the tanker Suez Rajan under a court order, the people said. The Suez Rajan first came under scrutiny last year when it was accused of carrying a cargo of Iranian oil bound for China from another vessel near Singapore. The DoJ declined to comment.
The previously unreported US action on the Suez Rajan shines a new light on Iran’s decision to seize the Advantage Sweet, a tanker chartered by Chevron to carry Kuwaiti crude oil to the US.
A U.S. official said Thursday that it “appears to be in retaliation for an earlier U.S. seizure of Iranian oil that Iran has recently tried but failed to take back.”
Iran has a history of seizing tankers in retaliation against Western countries targeting its crude oil exports. In 2019, Iran seized two British-flagged tankers shortly after the UK seized an Iranian ship docked in Gibraltar en route to Syria. Last year, Iran seized two Greek-flagged ships in the Strait of Hormuz after Greece allowed the United States to dump the cargo of an Iranian tanker in Greek waters.
A U.S. seizure would also raise questions about whether U.S.-linked operators were adequately warned about the dangers posed by sailing vessels such as the Advantage Sweet near Iran.
Suez Rajan’s alleged involvement in US-sanctioned Iranian oil trade was revealed in February 2022 by the pressure group United Against a Nuclear Iran. The news led to a civil lawsuit in Manhattan by families of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In an ongoing case, they sought to have the US seize Iranian oil carried by the Suez Rajan to pay reparations that a US court found it owed them in 2018 for Iran’s role in the attacks.
American interest in the ship arose because it was owned by Fleetscape, a subsidiary of US-based Oaktree Capital. This contrasts with the so-called “ghost fleet” commonly used to move Iranian oil. Ownership of those vessels is shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to bring claims.
During the 2022 claims, Fleetscape said all operational decisions were made by the ship’s Greek operators, Empire Navigation. Fleetscape and Empire said they took the allegations “very seriously” and that they were cooperating with US authorities to investigate the matter. Martin Graham, managing director of Oaktree Capital, argued that neither Fleetscape nor Oaktree had “any ownership” in Suez Rajan’s inventory.
Since those claims were made, Suez Rajan has kept a low profile, mostly reporting positions in shelters near Singapore since last March. Data analytics firm Kpler has no record of any transactions since February 2022. The ship’s transshipments provide depth in water as it is accused of carrying Iranian crude oil. .
Suez Rajan began its current voyage on April 7, reaching the Straits of Malacca and then west of the Indian Ocean. Its current location is unclear: it last broadcast its position on April evening, according to satellite data company Spire Global. 22 It was heading southwest past Madagascar towards the Cape of Good Hope.
The Advantage Sweet Suezmax tanker captured by Iran was operating under a short-term charter from Chevron, one of America’s largest oil companies. Its crew, all Indian nationals, are now being held by Iran. It was taken in the Gulf of Oman east of the Strait of Hormuz, US Central Command said. Ships and crews seized by Iran in the past were eventually released, but often not for months.
Fleetscape and Empire have been approached for comment.