U.S. Seeks to Seize Iranian Oil at Sea on Liberian-Flagged Tanker

US sees to seize Iranian oil
Achilleas was tricked into transporting an illegal Iranian oil cargo according to the U.S. (Capital Ship Mangement Group photo)

Published Feb 4, 2021 2:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

Signaling that the United States is continuing its efforts to block the Iranian oil industry, the U.S. Justice Department filed a forfeiture claim, the first under the Biden Administration. The complaint filed on February 3 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia targets all the oil aboard a Liberian-flagged vessel, the M/T Achilleas, a 297,950 dwt crude oil tanker operated by the Marinakis family’s Greece based Capital Ship Management Corporation.

The complaint alleges a scheme involving multiple entities affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the IRGC-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to covertly ship Iranian oil to a customer abroad. Participants in the scheme attempted to disguise the origin of the oil using multiple ship-to-ship transfers, AIS spoofing, falsified documents, and other means and provided a fraudulent bill of lading to deceive the owners of the Achilleas into loading the oil in question. 

“The forfeiture complaint filed today serves as a reminder that the IRGC and IRGC-QF continue to exert significant control over the sale of Iranian oil,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers for the National Security Division. “As we have demonstrated in the past, the department will deploy all tools at its disposal to ensure that the IRGC and IRGC-QF cannot use profits from the sale of Iranian oil to fund terrorism and other activities that threaten the safety and security of all Americans.”

The 12-page complaint illustrates the tactics used to hide the oil. They contend that at least part of the cargo was loaded in May aboard the M/T Sarak, a tanker flagged in the Marshall Islands and owned by Yam Shipping, while additional oil was also loaded in Iran aboard the M/T Sonia I, a tanker registered in Panama and owned by a company called Alp Shipping. In June, the Iranian-flagged tanker the M/T Humanity assumed the AIS identity of another tanker the M/T Lubov, while the oil was loaded aboard the Lubov. Yet another ship-to-ship transfer took place this time to the n Panamanian-flagged VLCC supertanker the Trident Liberty in August. In October, the Achilleas was chartered and the oil was transferred in another ship-to-ship transfer from the Trident Liberty.

The Justice Department says that the Achilleas departed the Gulf of Oman in December fully loaded with two million barrels of light crude oil reporting its destination as China. It was last reported as having rounded Africa and is believed to have completed its Atlantic crossing currently heading north along the South American coast. According to reports from Bloomberg, the tanker is now heading to U.S. waters after the owner of the supertanker, Capital Ship Management notified the U.S. that it might have unknowingly been tricked into loading Iranian oil.

Under the complaint filed in the U.S. courts, the Justice Department has the burden of proving that the oil in question is subject to forfeiture in a civil forfeiture proceeding. The complaint alleges in part that the oil constitutes the property of, or a “source of influence” over, the IRGC and the IRGC-QF, both of which have been designated by the United States as foreign terrorist organizations. The documents allege that profits from oil sales support the IRGC’s full range of nefarious activities, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, support for terrorism, and a variety of human rights abuses, at home and abroad.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia will continue working with our law enforcement partners to stem the flow of illicit oil from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Qods Force,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Michael R. Sherwin. “We will use all available tools, including our jurisdiction to seize and forfeit assets located abroad, to combat funding for terrorists and those who would do harm to the United States.”

This action follows a similar successful forfeiture claim in August 2020 in which the U.S. seized 1.6 million barrels of gasoline from Iran. It was later sold at auction netting the U.S. approximately $40 million. Earlier in 2020 and 2019, the U.S. failed in its attempts to seize Iranian tankers.