On Wednesday, the Department of Justice filed a complaint in a US District Court demanding the forfeiture of some two million barrels of oil aboard a Greek-operated, Liberian-flagged tanker, the Achilleas, based on suspicions that the vessel is involved in the shipping of Iranian oil abroad, in violation of US sanctions and anti-terror legislation.
Iran has no knowledge of US plans to seize some two million barrels’ worth of crude oil on board the Achilleas tanker, Deputy Oil Minister Amir Hossein Zamaninia has said.
Zamaninia’s comments come in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the DoJ last week charging that the tanker had been used by the Revolutionary Guards and its elite Quds Force formation (which the US designates as “terrorist organisations”) to smuggle Iranian oil abroad and avoid crushing US restrictions. According to the complaint, Capital Ship Management Corp, the tanker’s Greece-based operator, appeared to have no knowledge about the oil’s true origins. The Achilleas was reportedly ordered to set course for the US shortly before Joe Biden’s inauguration as president last month.
The forfeiture complaint, filed with the US District Court for the District of Columbia, claims that the ship carried out a ship-to-ship transfer of crude in October 2020 in the Gulf of Oman near the Emirati port of Fujairah. Officially, the ship was said to have been chartered to carry a cargo of Basrah light crude to China.
The DoJ did not provide details about how it obtained the information for its claim.
As of this writing, according to maritime tracking portal MarineTraffic, the Achilleas is sailing in the eastern Caribbean Sea about 200 km west of Guadeloupe, with its course set for the Galveston Offshore Lightering Area offshore terminal in Texas.
The US government has used similar tactics against Iranian oil “smuggling” in the past, seizing 1.6 million barrels’ worth of gasoline from Iran and selling it at auction, bringing Washington a $40 million profit in 2020. Similar attempts to seize Iranian vessels in 2019 and 2020 failed. A successful seizure of the Achilleas could net Washington roughly $114 million in profit based on current oil prices.
The United States targeted Iran’s oil industry as part of the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” in 2018, threatening countries purchasing Iranian-sourced crude with crushing secondary sanctions and promising to bring Tehran’s oil exports down “to zero”. The threat prompted most of Iran’s major customers, including Japan, South Korea, and Greece, to halt official purchases of Iranian oil. China and Iraq continued to purchase supplies, but at reduced quantities. The sanctions have had a substantial impact on Iran’s oil industry, halving production and cutting the state’s ability to make purchases abroad – including the purchase of emergency coronavirus supplies.
Iran has demanded that the US immediately lift all sanctions against it and return to the 2015 nuclear deal, which Washington unilaterally abrogated in 2018. The Biden administration has indicated that it expects Iran to return to compliance with the deal’s terms regarding uranium enrichment and stockpiling.