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US seizes millions, disrupts purchase of oil tanker in move targeting Iran's elite Quds Force

Gen. Esmail Ghaani, head of Iran's expeditionary Quds Force, speaks during an event near Tehran, Iran, on May 24, 2017.

HOSSEIN ZOHREVAND/TASNIM NEWS AGENCY /AP

By SPENCER S. HSU | The Washington Post | Published: May 2, 2020

U.S. authorities on Thursday charged two Iranian men and moved to seize $12 million used to purchase a now-detained Liberian-flagged oil tanker, calling it the largest seizure to date of funds used to support the elite Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Prosecutors allege the men were part of a scheme that channeled money through the United States to buy the tanker in a conspiracy that supported the IRGC, which the U.S. government designated a foreign terrorist organization last year.

Federal prosecutors in Washington unsealed export and sanctions violations charges against alleged ship-buyer Amir Dianat, 55. Treasury officials say he is a longtime associate of senior Iranian and Quds Force officials, including a former Iranian oil minister. Prosecutors also charged Dianat's alleged business associate, Kamran Ali Lajmiri, 42.

The government filed a forfeiture action to claim money used to purchase the Nautic, a 900-foot-long tanker that was previously named the Gulf Sky, and is now detained in the Gulf of Oman.

Simultaneously, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions against Dianat, also known as Ameer Abdulazeez Jaafar Almthaje, and a related company, Taif Mining Services LLC, for allegedly buying the tanker, generating revenue and smuggling weapons abroad.

The American actions targeting the Quds Force raised the latest prospect of Iranian reprisals since tensions spiked in January, when a U.S. drone strike killed the IRGC's chief military strategist, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Afterward, Iran launched retaliatory strikes against American bases in Iraq and accidentally shot down a civilian passenger jet.

Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The tanker struggle also echoed a standoff last summer, when British authorities seized the Grace 1, an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar, alleging it was carrying oil to Syria in violation of a European Union embargo. Iran soon detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz.

Gibraltar ultimately released the ship in August, despite a last-minute request by the same federal prosecutor's office in Washington to permit the United States to seize the ship, its oil, and $1 million alleging U.S. sanctions violations.

This time, Nautic's seller has persuaded a civil court in the United Arab Emirates to seize the ship pending a hearing Monday, alleging it never received payment. An unidentified American bank froze funds used to make payment in October, when the money passed through the U.S. banking system.

An attorney for the ship's seller, Polembros Shipping Ltd. of Greece, said the firm has been cooperating fully with U.S. prosecutors since learning funds from the brokered sale had been frozen.

"Polembros Shipping had no idea that its counterparties in this deal were engaging in the conduct set forth in the complaint filed today, and if they had any idea, they never would have done business with these people," said attorney Michael M. Fay of New York City.

In a statement, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, "The Iranian regime and its supporters continue to prioritize the funding of international terrorist organizations over the health and well-being of the Iranian people," who are grappling with a collapse in oil prices, the impact of western sanctions, and the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Treasury Department, Dianat is an associate of Quds Force officials – a trading company owner and Iran's former oil minister – and allegedly supported Quds Force smuggling operations, including efforts aimed to ship weapons and missiles.

U.S. authorities said the force relied on Dianat to secure entry for vessels and facilitate logistics, including for shipments from Iran to Yemen. Prosecutors alleged Dianat used a front company to purchase the Nautic, through intermediaries – including a Japanese agent who claimed no ties to Iran and no exposure to western sanctions.

Investigators were tracking the alleged illicit transactions, although at no time were U.S. financial institutions alerted that they were financing the purchase of an Iranian oil tanker, according to the office of Timothy Shea, the U.S. attorney for D.C.

However, Taif allegedly took possession of the tanker, sent it to Kharg Island, Iran, and loaded it with Iranian crude oil in coordination with the National Iranian Oil Company before it was subsequently seized.

U.S. officials have tightened sanctions on Iran's oil industry, a mainstay of its economy, saying the Revolutionary Guard and its major holdings have extensive interests in it and use the profits to support terrorism, proliferations of weapons of mass destruction and human rights abuses.

"This is yet another example of Iran brazenly using front companies and false documentation in an attempt to hide the illegal transactions that the Iranian regime desperately needs to fund its malign activities," Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in a statement.
 

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