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Iran denies ownership of seized oil tanker, tells Washington to 'stop acts of piracy'

United States seized Liberian-flagged tanker earlier this month, forcing ship to anchor outside Texas port
The US Justice Department on 14 August 2020 confirmed it had seized fuel cargo aboard four tankers sent by Iran to crisis-wracked Venezuela (AFP/File photo)

The seizure of a cargo of oil earlier this month on the grounds that it came from Tehran was an act of piracy, Iran's foreign ministry has said, alleging that the shipment did not belong to the Iranian government. 

The cargo was seized by the United States earlier this month after the Justice Department filed a forfeiture claim in a DC court, alleging that the oil was owned and being sold by Iran.

Specifically, the US government accused affiliates of the sanctioned Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of trying to mask the origin of the oil by transferring it to several vessels before its departure. 

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If true, the sale would be in direct contravention of US sanctions and terrorism regulations - but Iran denied on Monday such a turn of events took place. 

"This shipment does not belong to the Iranian government. It belongs to the private sector," foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference. 

While insisting the cargo belonged to the private sector, Khatibzadeh did not elaborate on who or what company was claiming ownership of the cargo. 

When the oil was seized it was aboard the Liberian-flagged Achilleas tanker destined for China. 

The Achilleas last reported its position on Sunday as anchored off Galveston, Texas, in the Gulf of Mexico, according to Reuters, which cited Refinitiv's Monday ship tracking data. 

First seizure under Biden

The seizure was the first to take place under newly sworn-in US President Joe Biden, who has vowed to work with Iran in order to re-enter a nuclear deal that would see a significant lifting of some US sanctions. 

"It is very unfortunate that such an act of piracy is happening under the new US administration," Khatibzadeh said on Monday. 

"A solution should be found to stop such acts of piracy by anyone for any reason," he continued. 

Last week, a Justice Department official said the US had sold more than a million barrels of Iranian fuel that was seized under its sanctions programme last year, adding that the proceeds were set to be transferred to the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund. 

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Washington began targeting the Iranian government in 2018 with a series of crippling sanctions that were reimposed after then-President Donald Trump withdrew from Iran's Obama-era nuclear deal with world powers. 

President Biden's first initiatives to revive the nuclear deal have stalled, as the US demands Iran returns to full compliance with the accord before starting negotiations, while Tehran says it will come into compliance after the US agrees to negotiate.

On Thursday, Hossein Dehghan, the only declared candidate in Iran's presidential elections, slammed the Biden administration for continuing Trump's policies, warning that Tehran was preparing retaliatory measures to force Washington to change its diplomatic trajectory.

"The Biden administration talked about diplomacy, multilateralism and interaction in the international arena as well as returning to its international commitments," Dehghan said. 

"However, we still see the same policies from the newly elected administration as we did from the Trump team: not lifting the oppressive sanctions against Iranian people, continuing to block Iran oil revenue in foreign banks while we need the money to fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

"Altogether this means the continuation of Trumpism in international relations."