A Greek shipping company has pleaded guilty in US federal court to smuggling 1 million barrels of Iranian oil intended for China that have now been seized by the American government, according to newly unsealed court documents.
The company, Empire Navigation, has agreed to a $2.4 million fine and three years of probation for its part in a scheme to conceal the Iranian oil transferred to their tanker, the Suez Rajan, for eventual sale in China in violation of US sanctions.
According to the statement of facts agreed to by Empire, the complex scheme involved fake logbook entries and falsified ship transponders in an attempt to hide the oil transfer from two other tankers, Virgo and Brilliance.
“The individuals and entities involved conspired to make it appear that the Suez Rajan received the oil, in its entirety, from the Brilliance rather than primarily from the Virgo, to obfuscate that it was overwhelmingly of Iranian origin,” the filing reads.
The Suez Rajan has been sitting off the coast of Texas since May, and tracking data revealed that the seized oil began unloading in August. However, the newly released documents are the government’s first public acknowledgement of the seizure.
Among the reasons for the delay in the transfer and in revealing the March plea agreement were fears for the safety of any company that helped the US offload the oil.
In July, the commander of the navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a US-designated terrorist organization, said that Iran would retaliate against any company that assisted the US government in the seizure.
“We hereby declare that we would hold any oil company that sought to unload our crude from the vessel responsible and we also hold America responsible,” he said. “The era of hit and run is over, and if they hit, they should expect to be struck back.”
In August, a bipartisan group of US senators and congressmen wrote to President Joe Biden about the delay, warning of the Iranian threat.
“The ability for a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) to prevent the transfer of seized assets within US territorial waters is an unprecedented intimidation effort that threatens to undermine our nation’s security,” the letter said. “No American citizen or company should ever fear retaliation from an FTO for assisting in law enforcement activities or engaging in lawful commerce.”
Ultimately, Empire Navigation itself assisted the US government in the transfer.
The seizure of the Iranian oil comes at a tense moment in US-Iran relations. The US has deployed additional ships to the Persian Gulf in part to deter Iran from seizing further oil tankers. In August, Iran released footage purporting to show a confrontation between the IRGC Navy and the newly deployed force, but the Pentagon denied Iran’s version of events.
However, as the Biden administration continues negotiations with Iran over US hostages and Iran’s nuclear program, Washington has also taken steps to placate the regime. In August, the State Department announced it was unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian assets as part of a deal to release the American prisoners, though US Secretary of State Antony Blinken denied that the money amounted to sanctions relief.
“We will continue to enforce all of our sanctions,” Blinken said. “We will continue to push back resolutely against Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and beyond.”
Despite those assurances, Iran has continued to ramp up its oil exports in defiance of US sanctions. At around 2 million barrels per day, Iranian crude exports are now approaching the volume reached before sanctions were re-imposed by the Trump administration in 2018.
That has raised bipartisan questions in the US Congress about potential gaps in the petroleum sanctions regime.
“United States sanctions should be enforced to the fullest extent of the law,” a bipartisan group of senators wrote to Biden in April. “As Iranian oil sales continue to rise, and the IRGC continues to target US citizens and service members, including inside the US, it is imperative that we use all available government assets to limit the activities of the Iranian regime.”
Source » algemeiner