Newly unsealed court records show that a federal judge has already approved the sale of suspected Iranian oil cargo from the Suez Rajan in a forfeiture action filed by the US government.

The US Justice Department said on Friday that it is pursuing a civil case aimed at the forfeiture of the alleged Iranian cargo that was seized from an Empire Navigation suezmax tanker.

US district judge Carl Nichols, of the federal court in Washington DC, issued an order in April approving the sale of the oil, if a reasonable price can be achieved. Funds must be held in an interest-bearing account until the forfeiture case is concluded.

Proceeds from the sale of the oil, if successfully forfeited, are expected to be deposited in the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, the Justice Department said.

The Justice Department revealed the civil forfeiture case on Friday, after TradeWinds reported that Greek shipping company Empire Navigation agreed to pay a $2.47m fine for smuggling sanctioned oil on its 159,000-dwt Suez Rajan (built 2011).

The criminal case against the Stamatis Molaris-controlled company had been quietly brewing alongside the forfeiture case targetting the cargo, court records show.

The civil forfeiture complaint alleged that the 980,000 barrels in oil, already seized from the tanker and moved to the port of Houston, was the centre of a scheme involving several entities connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force to covertly sell and transport Iran’s oil, according to the Justice Department.

The US has designated both Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force as terrorist organisations.

“Participants in the scheme attempted to disguise the origin of the oil using ship-to-ship transfers, false automatic identification system reporting, falsified documents, and other means,” US officials said in a news release.

“The complaint further alleges that the charterer of the vessel used the US financial system to facilitate the transportation of Iranian oil.”

The 159,000-dwt Suez Rajan (built 2011) transits the Bosphorus in 2019. Photo: Cengiz Tokgoz/MarineTraffic

The civil complaint, which was filed in March but unsealed on Friday, alleged that the oil is subject to forfeiture under terrorism and money laundering laws.

The document claimed that profits from oil sales fund “malign activities” of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism, the Justice Department said.

The just unsealed records show that the court issued a warrant for the arrest of the cargo in April, just days after the Suez Rajan left an anchorage off Singapore, where it had been held up for over a year amid lawsuits over the oil’s suspected Iranian origin.

The ship headed toward China before it was reportedly seized by the US and started a voyage toward Houston. Iran later seized the 159,100-dwt suezmax tanker Advantage Sweet (built 2012) in apparent retaliation.

As part of its plea agreement, Empire Navigation agreed to assist in the forfeiture of the oil, as TradeWinds reported on Thursday.

Iran has reacted angrily to the ultimate seizure of the Suez Rajan cargo, summoning a Swiss diplomat in late August to lodge a strong objection, according to the Associated Press.

“The subject of the seizure of an Iranian oil consignment by the US … is a completely unproductive action,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said, according to the newswire.