Iran Grabs Tanker in Retaliation for US Oil Seizure in 2023

Iran seized the tanker at the center of a 2023 case where the U.S. confiscated a crude oil cargo (file photo)

Published Jan 11, 2024 10:20 AM by The Maritime Executive


In an act of retaliation, Iranian forces this morning seized the crude oil tanker St Nikolas (158,573 dwt) after last year’s incident in which the United States seized a cargo of Iranian oil from the vessel. Iranian media is reporting that they boarded the vessel under a court order and that it is being taken to Iran.

The tanker, which is managed by Empire Navigation of Greece, had loaded a cargo at the Al Basrah terminal in Iraq and departed on January 8 bound for Aliaga, Turkey. A spokesperson for Empire Navigation told Reuters the vessel is under charter to Tupras, a Turkish oil refiner, and was operating with a crew of 18 Filipinos and one Greek, who was identified as a cadet on the vessel. 

The UK Maritime Trade Organizations issued an alert early this morning saying the tanker had been boarded by four to five armed individuals in a position approximately 50 nautical miles east of Sohar, Oman in the area between Iran and Oman. The report said the individuals were wearing military-style black uniforms with black masks.

Iranian media quickly confirmed the seizure saying it was “in retaliation for oil theft by the American regime.” They are reporting the seizure was conducted by the Navy of the Islamic Republic of Iran by a court order.

“The offending oil tanker Suez Rajan had stolen the cargo of oil belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran under the direction of the United States,” the Iranian media reports stated. The reports however are also referring to the vessel which is registered in the Marshall Islands and owned by the Greek shipping company as “an American oil tanker.”

Known as the Suez Rajan, the vessel was at the center of a legal battle after the Iranian watchdog group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) reported it was transporting a cargo of Iranian oil to China. The vessel was found holding off Singapore and Malaysia. The U.S. moved to seize the cargo and in a court case, the charterers of the vessel pleaded guilty and were fined. Empire Navigation ultimately cooperated with the United States sailing the tanker to Houston and providing a second tanker to shuttle the oil ashore. At the time, Iran threatened retribution.

At the end of the incident, the tanker changed identities to St Nikolas and slipped away from the U.S. The 13-year-old tanker remains registered in the Marshall Islands under the management of Empire Navigation. The company confirmed that it lost contact with the vessel at approximately 0630 local time today and has reported the incident to the authorities.

The reference coming from Iran to the vessel being an “American tanker,” may relate to its previous history. When the now infamous charter began in 2022, the vessel was owned by an affiliate of U.S. investment firm Oaktree Capital Management, Fleetscape which had financed the vessel for Empire Navigation of Greece. Oaktree Capital has repeatedly stated that its affiliate, Fleetscape, reconveyed registered ownership of the vessel to Empire Navigation in the spring of 2023 when the financing was repaid.

The U.S. by law sells the oil cargo seized from the vessels and was reported to have realized approximately $74 million from the cargo aboard the Suez Rajan. The money, by law, is contributed to a fund that compensates the families of victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.