U.S. seizes Iranian oil cargo near Greek island - sources

LONDON/ATHENS, May 26 (Reuters) - The United States has confiscated Iranian oil held on a Russian-operated ship near Greece and will send the cargo to the United States aboard another vessel, three sources familiar with the matter said.

It was unclear whether the cargo was impounded because it was Iranian oil or due to the sanctions on the tanker over its Russian nexus. Iran and Russia are facing separate U.S. sanctions.

The Iranian-flagged ship, the Pegas, was among five vessels designated by Washington on Feb. 22 - two days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine - for sanctions against Promsvyazbank, a bank viewed as critical to Russia's defence sector.

The vessel's Russian owner Transmorflot was subsequently designated on May 8. The tanker, renamed Lana on March 1 and flying the Iranian flag since May 1, has remained near Greek waters since then. It was previously Russian-flagged.

A source at Greece's shipping ministry said on Thursday that the U.S. Department of Justice had "informed Greece that the cargo on the vessel is Iranian oil".

"The cargo has been transferred to another ship that was hired by the U.S.," the source added, without providing further details.

The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on what it described as a Russian-backed oil smuggling and money laundering network for Iran's Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, even as Washington tries to revive a nuclear deal with Iran. read more

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the oil seizure.

Russian officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The confiscation was confirmed by a separate Western source familiar with the matter, who said the cargo was transferred onto the Liberia-flagged tanker Ice Energy, which is operated by Greek shipping company Dynacom.

A source at Dynacom confirmed that a "transfer of the oil was underway from the vessel to Dynacom's Ice Energy, which will then sail to the United States".

Iran's IRNA state news agency reported on Wednesday that its foreign ministry summoned the charge d'affaires of Greece's embassy in Tehran following the seizure of the cargo of a ship which was "under the banner of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Greek waters and he was informed of the strong objections" of Iran's government.

Greek government officials could not confirm the information.

IRNA quoted Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization as saying the tanker had sought refuge along Greece’s coast after experiencing technical problems and poor weather, adding that the seizure of its cargo was "a clear example of piracy".

The Ice Energy on Thursday reported its position as anchored close to the southern Greek island of Evia, ship tracking data on Eikon showed.

In 2020, Washington confiscated four cargoes of Iranian fuel aboard foreign ships that were bound for Venezuela and transferred them with the help of undisclosed foreign partners onto two other ships which then sailed to the United States.

Those seizures took place after a U.S. district court issued an order for the shipments' cargoes in a civil forfeiture case.

Greek authorities last month impounded the Pegas, with 19 Russian crew members on board, near the island of Evia's coast.

They said the ship was impounded as part of EU sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. However, the vessel was later released due to confusion about sanctions on its owners.

U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), which monitors Iran-related tanker traffic, said the Pegas had loaded around 700,000 barrels of crude oil from Iran's Sirri Island on Aug. 19, 2021.

Prior to this load, the Pegas transported over 3 million barrels of Iranian oil in 2021, with over 2.6 million of those barrels ending up in China, according to UANI analysis.

U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has been engaged in indirect talks to restart a 2015 Iran nuclear deal former President Donald Trump abandoned, under which world powers lifted international financial sanctions on Tehran in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

While talks had appeared close to resurrecting the deal in March, they stalled over last-minute Russian demands and whether Washington might drop the Revolutionary Guards from its terrorism list.

Washington's Iran envoy said on Wednesday the chances of reviving the nuclear deal were shaky at best, and Washington was ready to tighten sanctions on Iran.

Reporting by Jonathan Saul in London and Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Mazeltou in Athens; Additional reporting by Dubai bureau; Editing by Jason Neely, David Evans and Howard Goller

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