Iranian-Iraqi Businessman Charged, Sanctioned in Scheme Involving Purchase of Oil Tanker

The U.S. on Friday imposed sanctions and filed criminal charges against a businessman with ties to senior officials of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), accusing him of helping Tehran procure an oil tanker.

By Samuel Rubenfeld, Audrey Everist and Zach Caldwell

Friday, May 1, 2020

The U.S. on Friday imposed sanctions and filed criminal charges against a businessman with ties to senior officials of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), accusing him of helping Tehran procure an oil tanker.

Amir Dianat, a dual Iranian-Iraqi national, used his Oman-based company Taif Mining Services LLC to help purchase the tanker, then called the Nautic, according to U.S. authorities. He and the company were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department; federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C. charged Dianat and Kamran Lajmiri, a business associate, in a criminal complaint with violations of sanctions and money laundering laws.

“These defendants purchased a crude oil tanker valued at over $10 million by illegally using the U.S. financial system, defiantly violating U.S. sanctions,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “This is yet another example of Iran brazenly using front companies and false documentation in an attempt to hide the illegal transactions that the Iranian regime desperately needs to fund its malign activities.”

The sanctions and criminal charges announced Friday come amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran over the past month, including an incident in mid-April where officials said U.S. and Iranian military vessels came dangerously close to each other in the Persian Gulf. The war of words between the two countries continued this week. The U.S. allegations also come amid growing trade ties, including the expected launch of a third shipping line, between Iran and Oman, a U.S. ally. Oman has previously served as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran. 

Prosecutors filed a civil asset forfeiture complaint alongside the criminal charges, seeking USD 12.3 million in funds allegedly laundered in the U.S. to purchase the tanker. The forfeiture complaint represents the largest-ever seizure of IRGC-QF related funds, prosecutors said. 

The IRGC-QF, the external operations force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was designated in April 2019 by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Dianat, an associate of IRGC-QF officials Behnam Shahriyari and Rostam Ghasemi, has supported IRGC-QF smuggling operations for several years, including efforts aimed at the shipment of weapons, the Treasury said. He has been directly involved in IRGC-QF efforts to smuggle shipments from Iran to Yemen, the Treasury said. Shahriyari was sanctioned in 2011, and Ghasemi was designated in 2010.

Dianat and Lajmiri conspired to purchase the tanker using a web of front companies, including Taif Mining Services, prosecutors said. Taif Mining Services was nominally registered in the name of two Omani nationals, but Dianat and another Iranian individual maintained true majority ownership, according to court records. The Omani corporate record does not name the owners of Taif Mining Services. 

Dianat uses both Iranian and Iraqi passports with different names and dates of birth, and a confidential source told prosecutors that he and Taif Mining Services are associated with the IRGC-QF, according to court records. In addition, Dianat is a director of two other companies and an auditor of a third firm, Iranian corporate records show. Lajmiri, who prosecutors said in court filings had worked for seven years for the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), also sits on the board of directors of several companies, according to Iranian corporate records.

Dianat retained Lajmiri in 2019 as a consultant to assist with the purchasing, inspection and oversight of vessels, according to court records filed in the case. They agreed to buy the Nautic from a Liberian company, and Lajmiri hired a Japanese agent to assist with the purchase, records show. He initially planned to use an unnamed Iranian company to buy the vessel, but the Japanese agent told Lajmiri on April 30 that the bank processing the sale would need detailed background information as part of sanctions and due diligence checks. Around that same time, Dianat and Lajmiri established Taif Mining Services, court records show.

Emails seized via search warrant showed that Lajmiri acknowledged difficulty in getting the Liberian company to sell the tanker to a company with no background, and admitted that he had to circumvent sanctions to complete the purchase, according to court records. Lajmiri had lamented that “buying even the smallest and most ordinary items … has become a major challenge for Iranian traders … because of U.S. sanctions,” adding that “it is almost impossible under these circumstances” to buy tankers.

Funds involved in the purchase were wired through a U.K. brokerage firm, but some, including USD 2.34 million, constituting a 20 percent deposit, transited through the U.S., according to the forfeiture complaint. Taif Mining Services took possession of the tanker after sending the final wire payment to the seller in October 2019, prosecutors said.

The vessel quickly changed its name -- to the Gulf Sky, maritime and court records show -- and it began making trips to Iran to load Iranian petroleum, according to prosecutors. But because a U.S. bank froze funds related to the sale of the tanker, the seller never received payment and it filed a civil action in the United Arab Emirates as a result, prosecutors said. 

Taif Mining Services took ownership of the Gulf Sky in October 2019 according to maritime data. The tanker’s ownership was transferred to another company, Taif Shipping Services LLC, in January 2020, records show. Taif Mining Services said on Dec. 31, 2019, in a corporate record filed in Oman, that it was in the process of changing its name to Taif Shipping Services.

The vessel has been located since November 2019 around the Persian Gulf, in Emirati, Iranian and Omani waters, intermittently shutting off its AIS transponder, maritime data shows. Turning off the AIS transponder is an indicator of potential sanctions evasion, according to U.S. advisories.

After taking ownership of the tanker, Taif Mining Services ordered the captain on Dec. 2, 2019, to take the vessel to Iran, according to the forfeiture complaint. The next day, the captain told the company that a “notice of readiness” had been tendered to the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) at Kharg Island, Iran, for loading. The crude was loaded, and the Gulf Sky was subsequently seized pursuant to a UAE court order, the forfeiture complaint said. NIOC was sanctioned in November 2018 as part of the U.S. exit from the nuclear deal with Iran.

After the crude was loaded but before the UAE seizure, the Gulf Sky appears to have conducted a ship-to-ship transfer of the oil, according to a report by The National, citing satellite imagery analyzed by the co-founder of TankerTrackers.com, a service that monitors Iranian oil trade. The Gulf Sky’s AIS transponder was turned off during the time of the transfer, according to The National report and location data. The AIS was turned back on and the Gulf Sky sailed through the Strait of Hormuz before docking in the UAE on Dec. 15, The National reported. 


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