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U.S. Begins Offloading Iranian Oil from Tanker as Iran Calls it “Piracy” 

Houston oil terminal
Tanker appeared to lighter a portion of the Iranian oil to a terminal in Houston on Sunday (file photo)

Published Aug 21, 2023 1:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

A portion of an Iranian oil cargo seized by the United States appears to have been offloaded and landed in Houston on Sunday as Iranian officials called the actions “piracy” by the U.S. Government. The cargo of 800,000 barrels of Iranian crude that has been sitting off the Texas coast for nearly three months drew international attention after Iran threatened retaliation if anyone touched the cargo.

The saga of the Suezmax tanker Suez Rajan, registered in the Marshall Islands, began more than a year ago when Iranian watchdog group UANI (United Against Nuclear Iran) targeted the 158,570 dwt tanker saying it was the latest to be transporting a sanction-busting load of Iranian crude. They traced the tanker to an anchorage near Singapore where the United States began its attempts to seize the cargo in the courts. After months of legal wrangling, the tanker which was reportedly owned by an affiliate of U.S. investment firm Oaktree Capital Management, Fleetscape which had financed the vessel, while she was operated by Greece’s Empire Navigation, departed and was traced to the Houston anchorage where it arrived on May 30.

The tanker’s draft prevented it from docking in Houston, while The Wall Street Journal broke the story that tanker companies were refusing the assignment to lighter a portion of the cargo to the Texas terminal. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard issued a direct threat saying anyone involved with the cargo could expect Iran to strike back. The U.S. had previously reported in May that Iran seized two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz with analysts saying it was likely the first acts of retaliation for the Suez Rajan.

Tracking services spotted over the weekend that another tanker managed by Empire Navigation, the 49,999 dwt MR Euphrates, registered in Liberia, was alongside the Suez Rajan. Midday Sunday, the MR Euphrates traveled into Houston, where she remains docked on Monday. The Suez Rajan remains at anchor approximately 50 miles off Galveston.

U.S. officials declined to comment or respond to inquiries from Reuters on Sunday regarding the possible transfer. Oaktree Capital reports the vessel was reconveyed registered ownership of the vessel to Empire when the financing was repaid in May, and Empire Navigation also declined comments.

A spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry told the Iranian news media on Monday that they were aware of the reports calling actions against tankers carrying Iranian oil “a brazen example of piracy.” Iran’s state Tasmin News Agency reports Nasser Kanaani said, “The Islamic Republic won’t remain silent on any violation of the Iranian nation’s rights.”

Last week, a group of U.S. Congressmen called on the Biden administration to move more aggressively with the enforcement of the Iranian sanctions. They said the administration should complete the transfer of oil, which they said was worth $56 million, from the Suez Rajan. Previously, some of the same elected officials had called for the Biden administration to be more aggressive with the enforcement of the sanctions.

Timing of the transfer came shortly after the U.S. deployed an additional 3,000 marines and sailors to the Persian Gulf region arriving aboard the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, and the USS Carter Hall, a dock landing ship. U.S. and UK officials also issued a warning to international shipping to avoid as much as possible proximity to Iranian waters, while there are reports President Biden was prepared to begin offering U.S. Navy personnel to sail aboard the commercial ships as a deterrent to Iran. 

The U.S. has reportedly been attempting to keep the situation in the Gulf region calm as it is working on tense negotiations. Reports are Iran was preparing to release five American citizens that have been arrested in the country in a possible prisoner exchange along with the release of money held in South Korean banks which would be made available only for humanitarian relief efforts administered by a neighboring country to Iran.