An American oil tanker long suspected of transporting sanctioned Iranian crude began unloading near Texas late Saturday, tracking data showed, despite Tehran threatening to target ships in the Persian Gulf.
The fate of the cargo aboard the Suez Rajan is tangled amid greater tensions between the US and the Islamic Republic, as Tehran and Washington work towards a trade in billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets in South Korea to secure the release of five Iranians – Americans held in Tehran.
Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards have already warned that those involved in unloading the cargo “may face backlash.” The US Navy has steadily increased its presence in the Middle East in recent weeks, deploying the troop and aircraft carrier USS Bataan and considering deploying armed personnel on merchant ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz to take Iran to it to prevent seizing further ships.
Vessel tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press showed that the Marshall Islands-flagged Suez Rajan transferred her oil from ship to ship to another tanker, the Mr Euphrates, near Galveston, Texas, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) southeast. relocated from Houston. This will likely allow the charge to be dumped.
US officials and the Suez Rajan’s owners, Los Angeles-based private equity firm Oaktree Capital Management, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Suez Rajan saga began in February 2022 when the group United Against Nuclear Iran said it suspected the tanker was transporting oil from Iran’s Khargh Island, the main oil distribution terminal in the Persian Gulf.
For months it lay in the South China Sea off the northeast coast of Singapore before suddenly sailing towards the Gulf of Mexico without explanation. Analysts believe the ship’s cargo was likely seized by American officials, although there were no public court documents related to the Suez Rajan as of early Sunday.
Meanwhile, Iran has seized two tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, including one carrying cargo for US oil giant Chevron Corp. In July, the Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guard Navy threatened further action against anyone unloading the Suez Rajan, with prosecutors media tying the recent confiscations to the fate of the cargo.
“We hereby declare that we would hold accountable any oil company that attempts to offload our crude from the ship, and we also hold America accountable,” Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri said at the time. “The era of hit-and-runs is over, and if they strike, they face retribution.”
The Iranian mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the unloading of the Suez Rajan. Western-backed naval organizations in the Persian Gulf have also warned in recent days of an increased risk of ship seizures from Iran around the Strait of Hormuz.
The 2015 nuclear deal with world powers restored Iran’s ability to openly sell oil on the international market. But in 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement and re-imposed American sanctions. It wiped out much of Iran’s lucrative crude oil trade, a key engine of its economy and government. A cat-and-mouse hunt for Iran’s oil cargo also began — as well as a series of escalating attacks attributed to Iran since 2019.
The delay in unloading the Suez Rajan’s cargo had also become a political issue for the Biden administration after the ship had been moored in the Gulf of Mexico for months, possibly because the companies were concerned about the Iranian threat.
In a letter Wednesday, a group of Democratic and Republican US senators asked the White House for an update on the status of the ship’s cargo, which is estimated to be worth about $56 million. They said the money could go to the US Fund for Victims of State-Sponsored Terrorism, which compensates those affected by the September 11 attacks, the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and other militant attacks.
“We owe it to these American families to enforce our sanctions,” the letter said.
The US Treasury Department said Iran’s oil smuggling earnings support the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guard’s expeditionary force that operates across the Middle East.
Claire Jungman, United Against Nuclear Iran’s chief of staff, commended that the transfer finally happened.
“By depriving the Guard of critical resources, we are striking a blow at terrorism that is targeting not only American citizens but also our global allies and partners,” Jungman told the AP.