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Source: Financial Times

Apr 28, 2023

US seizure of oil vessel triggered Iran tanker capture

Authorities in the US redirected ship of Iranian oil bound for China this week, prompting retaliation from Tehran

BY Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran, Felicia Schwartz and Stefania Palma in Washington and David Sheppard and Chris Cook in London

US authorities ordered a tanker of Iranian crude oil to redirect towards the US in recent days, in a move officials believe was the trigger for Iran’s decision to capture a US-bound tanker on Thursday.

Three people briefed on the situation said the US had redirected a ship loaded with Iranian crude, originally destined for China, as Washington looks to step up enforcement of sanctions on Tehran.

They said the US Department of Justice seized the tanker, the Suez Rajan, under a court order with co-operation from at least one company involved with the vessel, after it took on board a cargo of Iranian oil.

Iran’s navy unsuccessfully tried to pursue the tanker after it changed course for the US. The DoJ declined to comment. The previously unreported US action towards the Suez Rajan shines a new light on Iran’s decision to capture the Advantage Sweet, a US-bound tanker of Kuwaiti crude that was chartered by Chevron.

A US official said Thursday’s “seizure appears to be in retaliation for a prior US seizure of Iranian oil, which Iran recently attempted to get back but failed”. Iran has a history of seizing tankers in retaliation for western countries targeting its crude oil shipments.

In 2019, Iran seized two British-flagged tankers shortly after the UK had impounded an Iranian vessel that had stopped at Gibraltar en route to Syria. Last year, Iran also took two Greek-flagged vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, after Greece had allowed the US to drain the cargo of an Iranian tanker in Greek waters.

The US seizure will also raise questions about whether US-linked operators were given sufficient warning of the potential increased dangers of sailing near Iran. The Hormuz strait, a narrow channel which separates Iran from Oman and the United Arab Emirates, is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes for oil.

About a third of all seaborne oil cargoes pass through the channel each day, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The current location of the Suez Rajan is unclear: according to Spire Global, a satellite data company, it last broadcast its position to other vessels on the evening of April 22 as it was heading south-west past Madagascar towards the Cape of Good Hope.

The vessel is owned by Fleetscape, an affiliate of US-based Oaktree Capital. In response to previous queries about the Suez Rajan, Fleetscape said all operational decisions were made by Empire Navigation, the vessel’s Greek operators.

Fleetscape and Empire have been approached for comment. The Advantage Sweet Suezmax tanker that Iran seized was operating under a short-term charter for Chevron, one of the largest US oil companies.

Its crew, all Indian nationals, are now being held by Iran. It was taken in the Gulf of Oman east of the Hormuz strait, according to US Central Command. Vessels and crew seized by Iran in the past have eventually been released, but often not for several months.

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