Greek shipping company Empire Navigation has agreed to pay a $2.47m fine for smuggling sanctioned Iranian crude oil seized by the US from the suezmax tanker Suez Rajan, according to US court documents.

The Stamatis Molaris company admitted that documents were falsified to hide the origins of the oil received in a ship-to-ship transfer in the Tanjung Pelepas anchorage, Malaysia, in February 2022, unsealed US court documents show.

The oil was seized by the US government and brought over from the South China Sea for unloading after the alarm was raised by United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), which monitors tankers carrying sanctioned Iranian crude.

The seizure sparked a new diplomatic row between Iran and the US and led to a series of tit-for-tat retaliations and raised alerts for shipping operating in the Arabian Gulf. Since the Suez Rajan headed to the US, Iran has seized two tankers and has linked potential further action with unloading the crude from the vessel.

The documents show the 159,000-dwt Suez Rajan (built 2011), which was operated by Empire, received the sanctioned oil from the 305,796-dwt VLCC Virgo (built 2002), which had loaded the oil from Iran’s Kharg Oil Terminal the previous month.

The captain of the Suez Rajan was told to doctor records to suggest that in back-to-back STS operations with the Virgo and a second VLCC, the 300,000-dwt CS Brilliance (built 1998), his ship took on oil only from the CS Brilliance.

But the reality was that only 4,000 legal barrels came from the CS Brilliance and nearly 1m barrels from the Virgo, according to the documents. The documents include satellite photographs showing the STS operations in progress.

Empire struck a deal with prosecutors in April this year to admit its involvement in the smuggling operation.

The fine represents twice the gross gain to the company from shipping the oil, the documents said.

As part of the deal, the company also agreed to help the US carry the cargo to the US for seizure and forfeiture.

US lightering companies were reportedly afraid to offload the crude from the ship because of reprisals.

Stamatis Molaris, head of Empire Navigation. Photo: Marine Money

“Given the nature of the cargo, the sensitivity of this action, and the time it was expected to take to transport the cargo to the United States, revelation of this action was likely to cause security risks to the defendants, the government, as well as the vessel and its crew members,” the newly unsealed documents said.

“Therefore, the government moved the court to seal these proceedings to lessen operational and security risks.”

TradeWinds reported last month that the company’s 50,000-dwt MR Euphrates (built 2008) took the crude cargo from the Suez Rajan to a terminal in Houston, vessel tracking data shows.

The company admitted the charge of violating sanctions on Iran in papers signed by a company lawyer.

The organisation said it did not have any interest in the oil but “admits, accepts and acknowledges responsibility for its conduct” and its employees, according to the prosecution’s documents.

US prosecutors released a satellite image of the STS operation between the Suez Rajan and the Virgo. Photo: US court documents

The US first placed Iran under sanctions in 1979 and later added the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, whose Quds Force wing is involved in unconventional warfare and military intelligence.

The IRGC and Quds Force use a network of shipping companies and front organisations to run Iranian oil smuggling operations and try to hide what they are doing.

Analysts have reported Iranian oil exports hitting the highest levels since former president Donald Trump pulled out of a nuclear treaty in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. Most of the country’s cut-price barrels have gone to China.