Washington, DC – The United States has acknowledged that it seized cargo containing nearly one million barrels of Iranian oil earlier this year, a move that had inflamed tensions in the Gulf.
The seizure was first reported in April by the Reuters news agency, but the US Department of Justice confirmed it for the first time on Friday.
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It said the oil is “the subject of a civil forfeiture action” after the shipping company operating the oil-carrying vessel, Suez Rajan Limited, pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate US sanctions.
“This is the first-ever criminal resolution involving a company that violated sanctions by facilitating the illicit sale and transport of Iranian oil and comes in concert with a successful seizure of over 980,000 barrels of contraband crude oil,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
It hailed what it called the “successful disruption of a multimillion-dollar shipment of crude oil by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)”, which is designated as a “foreign terrorist organization” in the US.
The announcement comes at a time when the US and Iran are finalising a prisoner swap deal, despite outstanding issues over sanctions and Tehran’s nuclear programme.
In the weeks after it confiscated the Iranian oil, Washington accused Tehran of seizing several international ships going through the Gulf.
In August, the Pentagon announced that it was sending thousands of additional US troops to the region to help “support deterrence efforts” and protect shipping lanes, including the Strait of Hormuz, prompting anger from Tehran.
While the US views intercepting Iranian oil ships as law enforcement, Iran has said seizing Iranian property in international waters amounts to piracy.
“Acts of trespassing on tankers carrying Iranian oil are a clear example of piracy,” Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Nasser Kanaani said last month.
“Iran will not stand idly by in relation to any violation of the nation’s rights and will cut the hands of the aggressors.”
The US started offloading the Iranian oil near Texas in August, several media outlets reported last month. US prosecutors are also looking to obtain a court order to gain possession of the oil “based on US terrorism and money laundering” laws. Iran is on the country’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism”.
Meanwhile, Washington and Tehran have struggled to revive talks over the 2015 nuclear deal, which saw Iran curb its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy.
Former US President Donald Trump nixed the deal in 2018, and Iran — which denies seeking a nuclear weapon — has been escalating its nuclear programme since.
The administration of current US President Joe Biden has kept enforcing Trump’s sanctions, pledging to severely restrict Iran’s oil sales. Still, current US officials blame the former president for the impasse.
“I would just point out that, under the administration before the previous guy, Iran’s nuclear programme was in a box. The last guy let it out of the box,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday, referring to Trump.
“We are now trying to manage the results of that decision. And we are doing so while deterring Iran from going for a nuclear weapon. And we have thus far been able to do that. It’s something we remain vigilant about every day.”