U.S. officials ordered an Iranian crude oil tanker to be diverted to the United States in recent days, a move officials believe prompted Iran’s decision to seize the U.S.-bound tanker on Thursday.
As Washington looks to step up sanctions on Tehran, the United States has turned away a shipment of Iranian crude originally destined for China, three people briefed on the situation said.
They said the US Department of Justice seized the tanker Suez Rajan under a court order in cooperation with at least one company associated with the vessel after it was carrying a cargo of Iranian oil. Iran’s navy tried unsuccessfully to pursue the tanker after it diverted the US route. The DoJ declined to comment.
The previously unreported US action on the Suez Rajan shines a new light on Iran’s decision to seize the Advantage Sweet, a tanker chartered by Chevron to carry Kuwaiti crude oil to the US.
A U.S. official said Thursday that it “appears to be in retaliation for an earlier U.S. seizure of Iranian oil that Iran has recently tried but failed to take back.”
Iran has a history of seizing tankers in retaliation against Western countries targeting its crude oil exports. In 2019, Iran seized two British-flagged tankers shortly after the UK seized an Iranian ship docked in Gibraltar en route to Syria.
Last year, Iran seized two Greek-flagged vessels in the Strait of Hormuz after Greece allowed the United States to offload an Iranian tanker’s cargo in Greek waters.
The US seizure will also raise questions about whether US-linked operators were adequately warned about the dangers of traveling near Iran.
The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow strait that separates Iran from Oman and the United Arab Emirates, is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes for oil. According to the US Energy Information Administration, one-third of seaborne oil cargoes pass through the Channel each day.
The Suez Rajan’s current location is unclear: according to satellite data firm Spire Global, it last broadcast its position to other ships on the evening of April 22 when it was heading southwest past Madagascar toward the Cape of Good Hope.
The vessel is owned by Fleetscape, a subsidiary of US-based Oaktree Capital. In response to earlier queries about the Suez Rajan, Fleetscape said all operational decisions were made by the ship’s Greek operators, Empire Navigation.
Fleetscape and Empire have been approached for comment.
The Advantage Sweet Suezmax tanker captured by Iran was operating under a short-term charter from Chevron, one of America’s largest oil companies. Its crew, all Indian nationals, are now being held by Iran. It was taken in the Gulf of Oman east of the Strait of Hormuz, US Central Command said.
Ships and crews seized by Iran in the past were eventually released, but often not for months.