Iran is holding a tanker as a “bargaining chip” on behalf of 'a company' involved in a dispute over an oil shipment, a group which monitors Tehran's efforts to evade sanctions has said.
United Against Nuclear Iran (Uani) said it was “highly likely” the Niovi had been seized on the direct orders of the regime and is being held after a subsidiary of Turkey's ASB group claimed a shipment of its oil was sold to a third party without its consent.
The Niovi was seized on May 3 and had previously been shipping crude for ASB, which was hit with US sanctions after being accused of facilitating the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars of oil for the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Panama-flagged ship was intercepted by the IRGC’s naval forces in the Arabian Gulf at dawn on the basis of a court order obtained in Tehran, Iran's Mizam news agency reported at the time, though it provided no further details.
It had left a dry dock in Dubai bound for Fujairah and was not carrying any cargo. Video footage showed Iranian speedboats surrounding the tanker.
Documents and leaked emails show a subsidiary of ASB accused another firm of selling a cargo of oil it owned to a Chinese company without its permission.
Uani’s chief-of-staff Claire Jungman told The National: “We believe Niovi is being held as a bargaining chip by Iran on behalf of the ASB subsidiary for the disputed oil shipment.
“It was reported in the Iranian press that the vessel was seized as a result of a court order, therefore it is highly likely that the Iranian government played a role in the decision to seize the vessel.”
Ms Jungman, who monitors tanker traffic for US-based Uani, said the seizure showed Iran was willing to “target tankers that have a strategic interest to them”.
The seizure of the Niovi came after that of another tanker, the Advantage Sweet, on April 27 as it travelled in the Gulf of Oman.
Photos from Planet Labs PBC showed the Advantage Sweet and the Niovi anchored to the south of the port city of Bandar Abbas near a naval base in Hormozgan province.
Using leaked documents, court records and legal reports, The National has been able to build a picture of why the Niovi may have been seized by Iran.
In November 2020, the Niovi landed a shipment of oil in China but a subsidiary of ASB, Baslam Nakliyat Ve Dis Ticaret, claimed it was the legal owner of the cargo and its lawyer demanded payment.
The dispute about who owned the shipment came to the High Court in London, as many contracts in the shipping industry allow for arbitration under English law.
Niovi’s Liberian owner Grand Financing Co took the case to court in a bid to prevent Le Mere Maritime from taking delivery of the oil.
The oil was described as “Omani crude” in court documents but Iran has widely been accused of using Oman for transshipments of oil and relabelling it as has having come from there.
According Uani ship-tracking data, Niovi took on Iranian crude from the Oman Pride, which had previously been loaded in Iran.
The Niovi is currently operated by Smart Tankers, based in Pireues, Greece, which has been approached for comment. ASB have also been approached for a response.