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Iran Calls in Swiss Ambassador to Protest U.S. Seizure of Oil Cargo

A floating storage unit operated by the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC file image)
A floating storage unit operated by the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC file image)

Published Aug 28, 2023 9:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

Iran is displeased with the U.S. government's decision to capture, sell and deliver a cargo of Iranian crude oil aboard the tanker Suez Rajan, a spokesperson for Iran's foreign ministry said Monday. 

Nasser Kanaani, a foreign ministry official, said that the chargé d’affaires of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran had been summoned to hear the Iranian government's objections. The U.S. and Iran have not had diplomatic relations in more than 40 years, and the Swiss embassy handles formal communications between the two sides in Tehran. 

Kanaani confirmed that the Suez Rajan's cargo is of Iranian origin, and he called the Biden administration's decision to confiscate the cargo "a completely unproductive action." 

In April, the U.S. government seized the tanker Suez Rajan after it was caught transferring sanctioned Iranian oil off Singapore. The ship and its 800,000 barrels of crude were dispatched on a 13,000-nautical-mile voyage to Houston, where the oil would be offloaded, sold, and the profits distributed to victims of terrorism.

The process of offloading the cargo to the buyer's refinery in Houston was delayed for months because the oil needed to be lightered off, and all local operators of lightering tankers were reportedly too scared of Iranian retaliation. “Companies with any exposure whatsoever in the Persian Gulf are literally afraid to do it,” one energy executive told the Wall Street Journal. 

Eventually, another tanker managed by the same operator as Suez Rajan came alongside and began the process of lightering. The 50,000 dwt Euphrates entered Houston with the first parcel of Suez Rajan's cargo on August 20. As of Monday, Suez Rajan was still at an anchorage off Houston, and reporting a far shallower draft, indicating that her cargo has been removed. 

The capture and confiscation of the Suez Rajan's cargo appears to be a sticking point in the Biden administration's covert talks with Iran. Late last year, the White House resumed discussion with Iran on a comprehensive nuclear security and prisoner-release deal. Iran's nuclear program has advanced markedly since it restarted in 2019, after the Trump administration abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal). U.S. officials warn that Iran could now enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon at will, within a matter of weeks of making the decision. Actually fabricating the weapon would take longer, but the "breakout time" for weapons-grade uranium enrichment is a key progress metric for foreign intelligence agencies.

Iran's Nasser Kanaani has confirmed indirect diplomatic talks with the U.S. On Monday he complained that the seizure of Suez Rajan's cargo was counterproductive for the discussions, and that the U.S. was both calling for talks and penalizing Iran at the same time. 

Iranian Parliament security committee leader Vahid Jalalzadeh has denied any possible revival of the JCPOA.

"The Islamic Republic (of Iran) is not negotiating over the JCPOA with the Americans at any level. We do not trust the Americans," Jalalzadeh told Iranian state media.