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Using a New ID, Suez Rajan, Tanker in Iranian Forfeiture Case, Departs U.S.

oil tanker
Using a new identity, the tanker at the center of the forfeiture case departed the U.S. (file photo)

Published Sep 20, 2023 4:09 PM by The Maritime Executive

The tanker at the center of the latest dispute between the United States and Iran, the Suez Rajan, quietly slipped away from the U.S. earlier this week using a new identity, the St Nikolas. The ship became the center of attention in what the U.S. Department of Justice highlighted as the first-ever criminal resolution involving a company that violated sanctions by facilitating the illicit sale and transport of Iranian oil.

The Suez Rajan, a 12-year-old crude oil tanker, had become tangled in the mysterious web of Iranian dealings in the efforts to avoid U.S. and international sanctions on the oil trade. At the time, the vessel was owned by an affiliate of U.S. investment firm Oaktree Capital Management, Fleetscape which had financed the vessel for its operator Empire Navigation of Greece. In February 2022, the U.S. Justice Department contends Empire received $1.2 million for the charter of the Suez Rajan (158,500 dwt), a tanker registered in the Marshall Islands. 

Court documents show the steps taken, with the Suez Rajan, which was empty at the time, instructed to make a ship-to-ship transfer receiving a small amount of crude from one tanker, the CS Brillance (300,000 dwt tanker registered in Panama). A few days later, another Greek tanker, the Virgo (305,700 dwt) arrived and made a second transfer to the Suez Rajan, although the captain was instructed to show a single transfer from the first vessel in the logs. The U.S. successfully argued the captain and chief officer working for Empire falsified the records of the oil transfer in the logs of the Suez Rajan to conceal the fact the vessel loaded a sanctioned cargo of Iranian crude from the Virgo. 

The U.S. prevailed winning a civil forfeiture action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for the crude oil cargo and was able to order the Suez Rajan, which had been in an anchorage near Singapore for nearly a year, to proceed to Houston to off-load the cargo. Empire Navigation in April 2023 pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $2.5 million fine, probation, and to assist in the off-loading of the cargo. However, when the vessel reached Houston reportedly none of the local shipping companies were willing to assist in lightering a portion of the oil to shore.

Empire Navigation supplied a second vessel, the MR Euphrates (50,000 dwt) for the lightering operation. The oil transfer finally began in late August. This tanker quietly departed Houston on September 8. Her AIS signal shows she is heading to Rotterdam where she is due on the last day of the month.

Iran has threatened retaliation over this incident. They have protested the seizure publicly in the media and meetings with the Swiss Ambassador. 

It is not clear what the reasoning was, but the Suez Rajan identity was quietly abandoned. Equasis dates the change over to September 1, but the vessel departed the offshore terminal near Houston on Tuesday, September 19 displaying the new name of St Nikolas. Oaktree Capital's affiliate Fleetscape reconveyed registered ownership of the vessel to Empire Navigation last spring when the financing was repaid. Equasis shows the ownership has remained with Suez Rajan Ltd. since May and that the management is unchanged with Empire Navigation. She is still registered in the Marshall Islands.

The newly identified St Nikolas shows that she is currently heading to Freeport in the Bahamas. The AIS signal says she is due to reach Freeport on Saturday. 

The U.S. hails the case as a success for the sanctions and money laundering laws. They contend the 980,000 barrels of oil would have been sold to a foreign entity, likely in China, and the profits from the oil sales would have supported the IRGC’s full range of malign activities. It is expected that part or all of the funds from this case will be directed to the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.