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US charges nine over Iranian oil smuggling

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US authorities have indicted nine individuals in connection with alleged schemes to smuggle Iranian oil, marking Washington’s latest salvo against Tehran as military tensions escalate between the two countries.

The US Department of Justice on Friday unsealed court documents accusing individuals from Iran, Turkey, China and Oman of operating a global network to illicitly sell Iranian oil to government-linked buyers in Russia, Syria and China. It also seized more than $108mn and 500,000 barrels of fuel valued at more than $25mn, it said.

It is Washington’s latest effort to cut off Tehran’s critical oil revenues. The seized assets “would otherwise have enabled Iran to further its destabilising activities that threaten our national security”, Merrick Garland, US attorney-general, said in a statement.

The charges came just before Washington launched air strikes in retaliation for a drone attack last weekend by Iranian-backed militias that killed three US service members. The militias have carried out more than 160 attacks on US service members since the war between Israel and Hamas began in October.

Senior officials in both capitals have said they do not want direct confrontation or a wider war, but analysts caution the back and forth could spill over or either side could miscalculate.

Washington has simultaneously been conducting strikes against Iranian-backed Houthi targets in northern Yemen in response to the rebel group’s attacks against commercial shipping transiting the Red Sea. The Houthis have said they will continue their attacks so long as Israel is attacking Hamas in Gaza.

“What we are seeing from Iran both historically but in particular since October 7, and the recent attacks on US forces by militias it supports, has only sharpened our focus on making sure we take all the steps that are within our authority to protect our national security,” said Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney-general for the DoJ’s national security division. “That’s what these cases reflect.”

In one indictment unsealed on Friday, seven defendants were accused of using a network of intermediary companies in countries including Lebanon, Turkey and Greece to sell Iranian oil to the Syrian regime and government-affiliated buyers in China and Russia. They each face charges including conspiring to materially support a foreign terrorist organisation and to violate sanctions against Syria and Iran.

One of the defendants is Behnam Shahriyari, a senior official of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force, who has been placed under sanctions by the US.

In a separate set of charges, two defendants from China and Oman are accused of selling Iranian oil to Chinese government-owned refineries via individuals and entities in Turkey, Oman and the US.

All defendants remain at large and could not immediately be reached for comment. Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said he was “not aware of the specificic situation concerned” but that “the normal energy co-operation between the international community and Iran under the framework of international law is lawful and justifiable, and should be respected and protected.”

The Russian embassy in Washington as well as the Syrian and Iranian missions to the UN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The DoJ last year seized Iranian oil found on the tanker Suez Rajan, which was sold for $74mn. The vessel’s owner pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate US international commerce laws.

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