US trying to 'seize illegal Iranian oil' aboard tanker
The new development suggests that Joe Biden might not bring about a quick change to the previous administration's policy of "maximum pressure" on Tehran, as was previously believed.
The forfeiture complaint alleges that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards' Corps (IRGC) and its elite Quds Force implemented a scheme to covertly ship oil, using several vessels, and then transferring it to the Liberian-flagged Achillieas tanker headed for China.
In a press release, the Department of Justice said that the IRGC and the Quds Force sought to disguise the origin of the oil via Tehran-affiliated entities "using ship-to-ship transfers, falsified documents, and other means".
It added that a "fraudulent" bill of lading, a document describing the contents of a ship, was provided to deceive the Greek-owner of the Achilleas into loading the oil.
Profits from oil sales fund the IRGC and the Quds Force - both designated as terrorist organisations by the US - in the pursuit of "nefarious" activities, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and human rights abuses, the complaint alleges.
According to Bloomberg, the Achilleas' owner, Capital Ship Management Corp, originally expressed concern to US authorities that it had unwittingly accepted Iranian oil, after assuming it had come from Iraq.
Washington gave orders for the Liberia-flagged ship to sail to the US shortly before Biden took power on 20 January, according to people familiar with the matter.
Tracking data show the vessel is heading to the US, sailing close to the South American coast.
The attempt to seize Iranian oil stands in contrast to the Biden administration's broader overtures to Tehran.
The new administration has signaled willingness to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if Tehran shows greater compliance by curbing nuclear enrichment.
Former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2017 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran in a bid to halt Tehran's oil sales and dismantle its network of regional proxies.
The Biden administration recently pulled an aircraft carrier from the Gulf region, the USS Nimitz, sent there by Trump as tensions soared.
A Pentagon spokesman said that the Biden administration did not view the carrier remaining in the waters as necessary to US security.
Last week, the State Department froze arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the Gulf states' military intervention against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, whose terrorist tag the State Department said it would review.
Yet the latest complaint, which follows an investigation by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland, comes as Tehran has increased energy exports in recent months, in what may be an attempt to test Biden’s resolve.
"Violation of human rights, terrorism or Iran's regional ambitions are not among the topics that the Biden team is willing to turn a blind eye," Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told VOA.
Vatanka added, "Tehran's support for terrorism is the last thing Biden is going to venture or gamble on."